Identity and Individuality: The Art of Belonging While Being Yourself

The fascinating complexity of child development has been studied for years – with many genius minds from Bandura to Vygotsky providing great insight into how a fetus can grow into an individual with extremely particular preferences and personalities. In Bandura’s social learning theory, he powerfully argues that preferences extend well beyond variations in taste, and serve as tools for a child to assert two paradoxical yet essential components of human existence – identity and individuality – as elements that continue to shape behavior throughout adult life.

Often guiding his or her preferences based on the cultural code of the group they wish to belong to, a child will wish to assert their identity at a very young age. This can be exemplified by the girl nagging her parents to buy a very specific pink backpack worn by older girls she looks up to. She is not only choosing a backpack; she is choosing to belong. Strongly preferring items and behaviors that reinforce group participation shows just how essential human need for belonging truly is. 

Paradoxically, though belonging is important, children will also develop preferences and desires in order to assert their individuality and uniqueness. A child may begin to like their waffles cut in a very particular way, or have an exclusive hide-out where they are the only guest allowed. These behaviors serve the important purpose of distinguishing oneself from the group in order to imprint a unique personality and way of being, often presenting itself as a powerful tool for leadership when done successfully.

In this context, children have the incredibly complex challenge of balancing the need to belong and avoid social exclusion with the need to assert individuality and avoid going unnoticed. It is in this beautiful and complex concoction of social learning and genetic predisposition that preferences flourish and personalities emerge. The importance of developing a healthy identity and sense of individuality – concepts so essential they are profoundly hardwired in human developmental priorities – can hardly be overstated. The following factors are crucial elements that enable children to not only grow, but thrive by learning the necessary skills to belong while being themselves.

01/ Unstructured Interaction With Their Physical Environment

As stated by the sagacious and curious Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, “We spend the first year of a child’s life teaching it to walk and talk and the rest of its life to shut up and sit down.” In the well-intentioned attempt to prepare children for a successful future, parents may end up over-scheduling and taking away the deeper development of curiosity and creativity that comes from open-ended, self-initiated play. Children need to be directly in touch with their physical environment. This means touching, hanging, swinging, smelling, and exploring the unknown.

02/ Limits and Delayed Gratification

The human brain has the incredible ability to set goals, delay gratification, and hold itself accountable for achieving them. However, this powerful brain also has the ability of falling short, succumbing to the attractive power of instant gratification, such as sugary drinks or a bad habit. For children, instant gratifiers such as impulse purchased toys or TV time to avoid a tantrum may create a dangerous shortcut between desire and satisfaction, limiting a child’s sense of agency, ability to regulate emotion, and project individualized preferences. Like a muscle, delayed gratification needs to be learned and practiced from a young age and children necessarily require adult limits and guidance in order to develop this ability. This may require more patience, but over time, it will also provide them with the strength to project themselves in the future and work actively towards something they want but cannot immediately have – often learning to work through tough feelings of frustration and anxiety along the way.

03/ Caring and Trusted Humans to Learn From

Social learning is the most powerful way of developing identity and individuality. Renowned biophysiologist Julie Mennella and Queen’s University professor Barbara Kisilevsky each found evidence that prove human taste and sound preferences begin to take shape while in the womb, respectively. At around eight months, a baby will begin to check for their mom or dad’s approval when meeting a stranger: a phenomenon called social referencing. This constant need to absorb and learn from others, particularly from highly valued models, only grows throughout childhood. Therefore, the importance of the interaction with peers – older peers as well as caring and trusted adults – can hardly be overstated in the context of childhood development. This interaction often takes shape in child’s play, an incredibly crucial exchange where children learn empathy, self-regulation, and rules of social behavior. These relationships also provide children a sense of confidence in themselves and the self-esteem they need to express their latent individuality.

04/ Admirable Cultural Role Models

While instigating awe and inspiring the little ones, cartoons, superheroes, and interactive video games help shape a child’s cultural context and represent the highly valued representational models of reality, serving as powerful guides for a child’s preferences and behavior. A child might want to have a type of cereal because of Tony the Tiger, and he or she wants to relate to their admirable character by conducting the same behavior. Though fictitious, many of the characteristics brought on by these figures can truly shape the way a child perceives his or her world and can reinforce cultural codes the child will learn to respect.

Marina Andreazi is a psychologist and the director of Idea Couture Brazil. She is based in São Paulo, Brazil.

Photo: Mo Riza

the author

Marina Andreazi

Marina Andreazi is the director of Idea Couture – Brazil. See her full bio here.