George Herbert Mead's Stages of Self and Development in Toddlers

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Toddlers experience a lot when it comes to gaining a sense of self-awareness and development. Learn about psychologist George Herbert Mead's research into a toddler's sense of self, the significance of I and Me awareness, and discover the four stages of self-development in toddlers that Mead identified. Updated: 09/29/2021

George Herbert Mead

What makes you who you are? How are you different from other people? How are you the same? Do you like to sing? Play sports? Do math? Are you good at relationships or better at being on your own? And how do you interact with the world around you?

Psychologist George Herbert Mead was interested in these questions. He studied self development, or the way that people's perceptions of themselves change. Specifically, Mead wanted to know how children and infants interacted with the world around them and what stages they went through to develop a unique, autonomous self. Let's look closer at two elements of Mead's theory of the development of the self: the 'I' and the 'Me,' and the stages of self.

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  • 0:03 George Herbert Mead
  • 0:49 The 'I' and the 'Me'
  • 2:38 Stages of Self
  • 5:58 Lesson Summary
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The 'I' and the 'Me'

You've heard of the expression 'Me, Myself, and I,' right? Well, Mead had a similar concept. He believed that there were two versions of the self, the 'I' and the 'Me.' Think about it like this. You're out shopping and you see a new home theatre system that you really, really want. The problem is, it's about $100 more than you can afford to pay. You slink off, upset and wishing you had an extra $100. Right then, just outside of the store, you see an old man who drops a $100 bill. He doesn't notice that he's dropped it, and it's just lying there on the ground. You pick it up. What do you do?

Your 'I' will take the money into the store and buy that home theatre system. The 'I' is spontaneous and unpredictable. It's the part of you that has nothing to do with society, and it acts that way. According to your 'I,' no one and nothing is as important as you! But your 'Me' is the part of you that's been socialized to think beyond yourself. That part of you will catch up with the old man, tap him on the shoulder, and return the money. After all, he might need that money for something important.

From our example, you might be thinking that the 'I' is bad and the 'Me' is good. And sometimes, that's the case. But the 'I' is more than just selfish; it's also authentic and creative. There's no B.S. and no masks with the 'I.' What you see is what you get. The problem is when the 'I' is the only one with a voice. You need the 'Me' to help regulate the 'I,' but you don't want it to suffocate the 'I' completely. Ideally, you can find a balance between the 'I' and the 'Me,' between authenticity and sociability.

Stages of Self

So how do you find that balance? Partly, that involves developing a cohesive self that represents who you are and what your values are. Mead pointed out that this occurs in four stages, and it occurs during infancy. The stages occur at different times during infancy and childhood for different people, but they always proceed in the same order.

1. Imitation: Have you ever seen a baby playing with his mom? He will mirror, or imitate, her actions and facial expressions. He's learning about himself and others and how to act based on what other people are doing, especially his parents.

2. Play: After a while, the baby begins to understand that symbols can represent something. For example, a toy car represents a real car. Once a child reaches this stage, he will begin to use his imagination. Suddenly, he's not just going through the motions; through play, he can become anything he wants: a firefighter, ballet dancer, world-class athlete, chef, or anything else he can think of. This stage involves him learning to think about others and how they are alike or different from him.

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