What is Identity Development?

by Debbie LeeKeenan

In the early years, from just a few months after birth and during the first year, infants are gradually becoming aware of self as a separate being. They are sorting out “what is me” and “what is not me.” This development of self occurs, when babies progress from noticing human faces to distinguishing both familiar and unfamiliar people. In toddlerhood self-awareness reaches a highpoint when children can identify themselves as unique individuals. The toddlers take in the messages they have received about themselves (I am loved, I am safe, I have feelings) and develop a sense of who they are and what they are capable of doing (I can do it myself).  When babies and toddlers learn the world is safe and that people can be counted on and trusted, they are better able to believe that people are basically good and to let people into their lives.

Noticing ourselves as distinct and different from others, learning about differences and then groups, is what we call social identity development.

In the preschool years, children continue to learn and grow, and with that brings the ability to notice how things are the same and different. Their attention to detail means they are increasingly aware of how people differ from one another. They are naturally curious and want to know about themselves and others. Preschool years are often called the question-asking stage. They wonder “Where people get their skin color?” and “Why are her eyes like that?” Early preschoolers do not understand that objects and people stay the same even though their physical appearance may change. That’s why we might hear little boys say, “When I grow up, I will be a dinosaur.”

In later preschool and elementary years children begin to understand what it means to be part of a group. They can describe themselves in terms of physical features. They begin to understand cultural identity.

Noticing ourselves as distinct and different from others, learning about differences and then groups, is what we call social identity development. A child’s self- concept and identity begins to develop at birth. It begins with parents and caregivers creating a positive emotional bond with the baby through responsive, warm, caring interactions, a lot of eye contact and touch.

We support a baby’s identity development when we play games like Peekaboo, look in the mirror with baby, or sing or do rhymes with baby’s name.

While social identity begins in our family, messages from the larger society soon filter in to influence how our children think of themselves and others. These messages are both overt and covert and come from many places: friends, television shows and movies, books and advertising, the internet, and early childhood programs, such as daycare, preschool and enrichment camps, classes and activities. Social identities are the many ways that human differences are expressed. Some of these include gender, sex, race, ethnicity, economic class, language, and abilities.

Overt messages are said aloud or are visible. For example, people explicitly declare their ideas when they say, “Boys don’t cry,” “Be careful, she’s a girl and can get hurt,” and “Children can’t have two daddies.” Covert messages are harder to spot because they are, by definition, hidden – and sometimes hidden on purpose.  Covert messages come from what is not seen, such as the kinds of characters and people in books they read or who is and isn’t in their swim class or art camp. It is also confusing for children, when they hear overt messages and covert messages at the same time. For example, a child may hear, “People are all alike and that we should treat all people with respect” yet they may never see their families develop friendships with people different from themselves. Or children may hear adults say, “Looks aren’t important,” yet they are regularly praised for their appearance and clothing.

Many people think young children are “color-blind” and don’t notice differences. But we know that young children are aware and curious about human differences by the questions they ask:

  • Why does he talk funny?
  • Why is that lady being pushed in a chair?
  • Why is my skin this color? Can I change it?
  • Mary has two mommies; does she have a daddy?
  • Is Devlin a boy or a girl?
  • Why is that man sleeping on the street? Is he dead?

When adults hear comments and questions like these from children, we can have a variety of responses: sometimes we ignore the questions; we are embarrassed or confused and not sure what to say; and sometimes we over-react.

It is not surprising to feel some discomfort and anxiety in these moments. Many of us were taught as children to avoid controversial topics, such as prejudice, or were encouraged to not “rock the boat” in our jobs. But when we are silent or actively steer children away from conversations about human differences, then our children are left to draw their own conclusions about diversity and equality. They may decide that there is something “bad” about differences among people. And, from us, they also learn that they are not supposed to ask questions. Young children need caring adults to help them construct positive sense of self and a respectful understanding of others.

Children’s awareness of human differences and attitudes towards diversity has been researched for the past 90 years, yet very few child development text books share this information.

The chart below, Stages of Identity and Attitude Development, describes some of the characteristics of each developmental stage of how children become aware of human differences as well as some strategies that adults can use to support the development of positive social identity and prevent and reduce prejudice in children. In this chart, “Adults” refer to anyone caring for the child – parents, grandparents, other family members, caregivers, teachers, etc., both in and out of the home.

Stages of Identity & Attitude Development

Note: Adapted from York, S. (2003). Roots and Wings: Affirming Culture in Early Childhood Programs (revised edition). Minneapolis, MN: Redleaf.1


  • Become aware of self as separate being
  • Recognize familiar people and show fear of strangers
  • Recognize and explore faces “what is me” and “what is not me”
  • Begin to notice and respond to skin color cues (at 6 months)
  • Develop a sense of trust
  • Show fear and anger

Adults can:

  • Respond to your baby’s needs in a loving and timely fashion
  • Acknowledge and accept the range of feelings babies have
  • Share books and other media with children that include positive, accurate, current and non-stereotyped characters
  • Share diversity in your community with your baby


  • Experience and show shame
  • Begin to mimic and “catch” adult feelings and behavior about diversity
  • Ask “What’s that?”

Adults can:

  • Foster interactions with a range of people
  • Share books and other media with children that include positive, accurate, current and non-stereotyped characters
  • Model comfortable, respectful, empathic interactions with people who are different from you


  • Classify people by their biological sex
  • Recognize physical characteristics
  • Learn names of colors and notice skin color
  • May begin to use social identity labels (gender, race, ethnicity, class, physical disabilities) and exhibit early discomfort and misconceptions about diversity

Adults can:

  • Share books and other media with children that include positive, accurate, current and non-stereotyped characters
  • Address signs of discomfort about social identities (gender, race, ethnicity, class, physical disabilities)
  • Continue modeling culturally responsive behavior

Three to Five

  • Group people by their physical characteristics
  • Are aware of variations and wonder where they fit in
  • Children are not yet clear about racial identity constancy. (Will I always have this skin color?)
  • Ask “why” questions about diversity
  • Susceptible to believing misinformation and stereotypes they encounter about self or others

Adults can:

  • Acknowledge children’s observations and questions about racial/cultural identity and other social identities
  • Teach children that physical and cultural characteristics come from their membership in a family and racial/cultural group
  • Sort out and counter incorrect information and stereotypical generalizations and address signs of discomfort
  • Celebrate and normalize human differences
  • Explore fair and unfair

Five to Eight

  • Understand cultural identity
  • Identify stereotypes
  • Consolidate social identities and may exhibit rigid thinking and behavior regarding them
  • May show anger through insults and name-calling

Adults can:

  • Deepen pride in their identity and build authentic, accurate information about others
  • Identify what is fair and unfair stereotyping in the media, books, toys, greeting cards, holiday decorations
  • Develop tools for dealing with intolerant and unfair behavior – such as name calling, gossip and rejection
  • Encourage empathy for others, for example by asking children, what did you do today that made someone feel good? What did you do today that made someone feel bad?

Very young children, including babies, are learning about themselves and their social identity from birth. They are beginning to absorb a cultural identity through daily caregiving interactions, household smells, touches, smiles, cooing, and sounds. Family culture is the child’s first socializing context, giving a child a set of beliefs, values, language, and rules of behavior for interaction with the world.  We couldn’t have a more important role in supporting our baby’s healthy development to grow up in an increasingly diverse world.

1York based this chart on Derman-Sparks, L., & Edwards, J. O. (2010). Anti-bias education for young children and ourselves. Washington, DC: NAEYC.

About the Author

Debbie LeeKeenan is an early childhood consultant, lecturer, and author. She has been in the field of early education for over 45 years. She is a former preschool and elementary school teacher. She was director of the Eliot-Pearson Children’s School at Tufts University from 1996 to 2013. In addition to being a faculty member in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, she was a member of the early childhood faculty at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts and the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Her publications include co-author of Leading Anti-Bias Early Childhood Programs: A Guide for Change with Louise Derman-Sparks and John Nimmo, and contributing author to Proactive Parenting: Guiding Your Child from Two to SixDebbie is also an active grandmother, recently moving to Seattle to be part of the village, caring for her 13-month-old granddaughter here and facetiming daily with her 13-year-old granddaughter in Austin, Texas. For more information about Debbie’s work and resources see her website http://www.antibiasleadersece.com/

  One thought on “What is Identity Development?

  1. Jennifer
    November 26, 2017 at 2:38 am

    I think this is wonderful! (Though I think the author covertly inserted some gender messaging herself with “That’s why we might hear little boys say, “When I grow up, I will be a dinosaur.””

    • Debbie LeeKeenan
      November 27, 2017 at 10:02 pm

      Thanks Jennifer for your thoughts…and yes, we could say, “Any child might say, “When I grow up, I will be a dinosaur.”

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