Creative Education
2011. Vol.2, No.5, 415-417
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. DOI:10.4236/ce.2011.25060
Review of Children’s Identity Construction via Narratives
Jiryung Ahn
Department of Early Childhood Education, Uiduk University, Gyeongju, South Korea.
Received September 2nd, 2010; revised October 22nd, 2011; accepted November 10th, 2011.
Understanding oneself is a fundamental human concern that starts early and continues throughout life. Identity
construction is also a life-long process, but early childhood is the critical period for laying the foundation. Chil-
dren’s identity construction proceeds through diverse perspectives which do not necessarily follow developmen-
tal steps. These perspectives include how children view themselves in relation to others through narratives, and
how they embody themselves in the peer interactions of peer group and school. Self-identity is changed and
transformed through interactions with environment and diverse expe riences. The various w ays children construct
their identities reveal their efforts to “become”. Understanding who we are in early childhood opens the door to
acknowledging ourselves as significant human beings.
Keywords: Identity, Narrative, Early Childhood Education
A child’s personal identity is crucial, not only in individual
development but also for positioning as a social being. In one
sense, identity is regarded as the holding of history. It was once
taken for granted that all persons had a “given” identity. The
debate surrounding this issue today assumes that identity is not
an inherent quality of a person, but that it arises through inter-
action with others and a focus on the processes by which iden-
tity is constructed. Identity is crucial in acknowledging who we
are and in defining who we are as well. When we turn to the
lives of children, early childhood has long been considered a
critical time in the formation of self-esteem, self-identity, and
self-concept (Sunal, 1990). In particular, self-identity has a
social connotation, that is, it includes an awareness of being in
group. The identity of children is a field that is investigated
from perspectives that generate possibilities for new ways of
seeing, doing, and being in the world. Early childhood is an
important time for building self-worth, confidence, belief about
self-ability, and belief about the anticipation and achievement
of becoming a social being with a group. Therefore, knowing
who they are and how to perceive themselves is the initial stage
of “becoming” a process that spans a lifetime.
Definition of Identity
“There is no such thing as a fixed, ready-made, finished self.
Every living self causes acts and is itself caused in return by
what it does. Our personal identity is found in the thread of
continuous development which binds together these changes. In
the strictest sense, it is impossible for the self to stand still; it is
becoming, and becoming for the better or the worse.” (John
Dewey, Ethics, 1932, cited in Graham, 1991: p. 44)
Broadly speaking, identity is our understanding of who we
are. Theoretically, the concept of identity involves similarity
and difference (Ricoeur, 1992), identity is the way we relate to
and distinguish between individuals and groups in their social
relations and with other individuals or groups. This is distin-
guished from the differences grasped both between and within
entities, each being understood as a multiple presence. It gives
us an idea of who we are and how we relate to others and to the
world in which we live. Identity is presence, not so much as
something already present, but rather as a production in the
throes of being.
Postmodern and sociocultural theories have stressed the im-
portance of exploring situated discursive practices in the con-
struction of identity, rather than seeing identity as reflecting
essential aspects of human behavior. “Identity” is a continuous
evoking of self-understanding. Lacan’s “ego” seeks identity as
a unified “me” or, in other words, sees itself in the face of the
“Other”. “I” emerges in the presence and reflection of another,
which means identity is linked to someone else. Therefore, in
terms of constituting “self”, identity requires not only self-
judgment about being, but also the influence of others.
“Identity formation is conceived as an ongoing process that
involves the interpretation, and reinterpretation of experiences
as one lives through them.” (Kerby, 1991)
As noted above, the definition of identity can be understood
as an ongoing process. The field of early childhood education
currently views identity as hierarchically tied to developmental
psychology and its accompanying constructions of children and
early education. In an attempt to move beyond current under-
standing, this essay seeks to provide a new, broader road to the
world of children. Identities can never be unified and fixed;
they are always in flux, always multiple, and continually under
construction. No matter what the context, we are continually
engaged in becoming “something” of “someone”.
Children’s Identity Construction through
Review of Narratives in Early Childhood Education
Who we are and how we come to see ourselves is increas-
ingly viewed as the ongoing and ever-changing story we tell
about our lives. Children encounter and use narratives in a vari-
ety of ways, for instance, telling and retelling personal experi-
ences (Miller & Mehler, 1994), creating stories in play and
social experiences (Chang, 1998; Kyratzis, 1999), reading and
listening to stories through literature (Bettelheim, 1976), and
reading and writing and using and encountering narratives in
texts where narrative is used to explain an event, idea, or some
phenomena. Giroux (1987) also points out how an individual’s
stories, memories, narratives, and readings of the world are
inextricably related to wider social and cultural formation and
Narrative constitutes a means of organizing one’s self inter-
personally. The representation of events in narrative discourse
allows experience to become internalized and owned. The on-
going stories that children create about themselves are embed-
ded within the social, familial, and cultural contexts within
which development occurs. These stories serve not only as a
venue for self-expression and communication with others, but
also as a means of creating meaning out of lived experience.
For children, storytelling or visual narrative is meaningful and,
further to this, narratives read from literature are critical in their
lives. Among the research concerning children’s narratives and
identity construction (Bettelheim, 1976; Chang, 1998; Kyratzis,
1999; Miller & Mehler, 1994), Bettelheim’s approach has spe-
cial significance for it explores the meanings and importance of
fairy tales. Through literary narratives (1976), children search
for the answers to such questions as, “Who am I?” “How
should I deal with such problems?” “What must I become?” As
children develop, they learn step by step to understand them-
selves and, by doing so, become better able to understand oth-
ers and eventually relate to them in ways which are mutually
satisfying and meaningful. The deepest meaning will be differ-
ent for each person, and also different for the same person de-
pending on the moment.
Through fairy tales, children gain a feeling of selfhood and
self-worth, and a sense of moral obligation, for these stories
reveal children’s conscious self so they can eventually cope
with the unconscious. Fairy tales enrich children’s lives and
leave children feeling enchanted because they do not quite
know how the stories have worked their wonder on them. The
imaginative world experiences found in fairy tales offer a new
avenue for children to restore meaning to their lives. This is an
important device, for it makes obvious the fact that the fairy
tales’ purpose is to provide not only information about the ex-
ternal world, but also insight into the internal processes taking
place within the individual.
Children’s narratives play a role in constructing a self-con-
cept that refers to one’s idea of one’s identity as distinct from
others. Moreover, they are vital to understand children’s world
construction. A child’s self-formation is then two-fold, involv-
ing first the becoming/constructing of self (individually and
socially) and then revealing this self to the world. Children are
natural storytellers in that they know how to shape thoughts and
feelings. In telling, listening to, and reading stories, children
transform experiences into original structures by crossing be-
tween reality and fantasy. Childhood is the time to learn to
bridge the immense gap between inner experiences and the real
world, and in these stories are messages about human experi-
ences and how to deal with basic human predicaments. These
messages help bridge the gap. As a result, through narratives,
children have a chance of constructing an individual “being”
who holds personal values, concepts, and perspectives. Self-
construction, especially, occurs through the relation to the cha-
racters with in the stories. Furthermore, by helping to mold
personality and establish a basis of identification, these stories
encourage children to internalize individual values and trans-
form into mature human beings.
The Implications of Narratives in Co nstructing
Children’s Identity
Bakhtin (1981) argued that people become who they are
through communication, and the dialogue between voices con-
stitutes context. To know how one constructs, deconstructs, and
reconstructs one’s identity, we need to focus on personal narra-
tives. One of the central purposes of narrative is to allow us to
construct a narrative identity—both at the level of history and at
the level of individual life. To understand children’s identity
construction, we need to pay attention to their narratives. Chil-
dren weave life experiences into coherent stories, or narratives,
in ways that reconstruct images of themselves and the groups or
communities with which they affiliate. The stories we tell and
hear are part and parcel of our becoming, and we embrace their
meanings for our lives, both implicitly and explicitly. This is
the notion that narrative somehow mediates between self and
world, either evoking or simply creating order and meaning.
Ricoeur (1992) writes that stories offer us models for the re-
description of the world. Narrative, the power of narrative, and
ways of knowing and caring are tools for grasping the self in
relation to the other. Narrative promotes self-identity through
prefiguration, configuration, and r efigur ation proce sses.
Regarding narrative and the construction of identity, Ricoeur
(1992) sheds light on narrative as a process of identification.
According to Ricoeur, identity is constructed with two different
sides. On one side of identity is sameness (Latin, idem—cha-
racter) and on the other side is selfhood (Latin, ipse—core of
self). This selfhood is not sameness (Ricoeur, 1992, p. 116).
Sameness is a concept of relation and a relation of relation. We
acknowledge that selfhood identity covers a spectrum of mean-
ings, from the pole where it overlaps with sameness identity to
the opposite pole, where it is entirely distinct from the latter.
Identity means interpretation of intersubjectivity between self
and other.
Narrative identity in the conceptual constitution of personal
identity in the manner of a specific mediator between the pole
of character, where idem and ipse tend to coincide, and the pole
of self-maintenance, where selfhood frees itself from sameness
(Ricoeur, 1992: p. 119). That is, narrative identity discloses
itself in the dialectic of selfhood and sameness. What is more,
in the plural world, stories are key to understanding who we are.
A life can be represented by a narrative and shared with others.
Based on Arendt’s (2000) perspective, our life is a narrative
and that narrative is an action. According to Taylor, defining
identity is always in dialogue with, and sometimes in struggle
against, the identities our significant others want to recognize in
us (1989).
People use narratives to construct individual identities th-
rough personal storytelling and autobiography, and through
reflections from reading literature, all processes that can be
termed self-narration. The use of stories is productive in many
ways: past and current version(s) of self are juxtaposed in ways
that produced different layers of meaning, understanding, and
reconstruction of identity. In this respect, narrative can be seen
as an important activity in the process of identity construction
and as a way of exploring how versions and reconstructions of
the past shape and construct the present in that key area of
identity construction, the interrelationship of past and present.
Understanding oneself is a fundamental human concern that
starts early and continues throughout life. The relationship be-
tween narrative and identity, we begin to use categories of ap-
praisal that, traditionally, have been less readily tied to social
science inquiry. Considering narrative depictions of identity are
those such as “lifelikeness”. Identity construction is also a life-
J. AHN 417
long process, but early childhood is the critical period for lay-
ing the foundation. Children’s identity construction proceeds
through diverse perspectives which do not necessarily follow
developmental steps. The various ways children construct their
identities reveal their efforts to “become”. Understanding who
we are in early childhood opens the door to acknowledging
ourselves as significant human beings.
Bakhtin, M. (1981). The dialogic imagination. Austin, TX: University
of Texas Press.
Bettelheim, B. (1976). The uses of enchantment: The meaning and
importance of fairy tales. New York, NY: Random House.
Brockmeier, J., & Carbaugh, D. (Eds.) (2001). Narrative and identity:
Studies in autobiography, self and culture. Philadelphia, PA: John
Benjamins Publishing Company.
Chang, C. (1998). The development of autonomy in preschool manda-
rin Chinese-speaking children’s play narratives. Narrative Inquiry, 8,
77-111. doi:10.1075/ni.8.1.05cha
Giroux, H. (1987). Critical literacy and student experience: Donald
Grave’s approach to literacy. Language Arts, 64, 175-181.
Graham, R. J. (1991). Reading and writing the self: Autobiography in
education and the curriculum. New York, NY: Teacher College
Grieshaber, S., & Cannella, G. S. (Eds.) (2001). Embracing identities in
early childhood education: Diversity and possibilities. New York,
NY: Teacher College Press.
Kerby, A. P. (1991). Narrative and the self. Bloomington, IN: Indiana
University Press.
Kristeva, J. (2000). Hannah Arendt: Life is a narrative. Toronto, ON:
University of Toronto Press.
Miller, P. J., & Mehler, R. A. (1994). The power of personal storytel-
ling in families and kindergartens. In A. H. Dyson, & C. Genishi.
(Eds.), The need for story: Cultural diversity in classroom and com-
munity (pp. 38-54). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of
Ricoeur, P. (1992). Oneself as another. Chicago, IL: The University of
Chicago Press.
Sunal, C. S. (1990). Early childhood social studies. Columbus, OH:
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press.