Meta-cognition in infants and toddlers

A recent discussion with a good friend and colleague brought up the topic of meta-cognition. Meta-cognition is, simply put, knowledge of ones’ own self. There have been arguments about the measurement of meta-cognition. How can we measure awareness of ones’ own self? Can we set guidelines or rules to decide how much one knows about oneself?

I have been fiddling with this aspect of knowledge for years now with no real outcomes. Truth be told, I’d all but given up on ever coming to any real understanding of meta-cognition, for it seemed to abstract to me! However, I recently chanced upon an understanding of meta-cognition in my toddler, A, which then lead to an avalanche of thoughts on different instances where A has demonstrated that she does have meta-cognitive knowledge, or awareness of her own self. In addition, I could also identify future instances where her meta-cognition would prove to be a milestone. Here were some of my thoughts:

  1. Awareness of one’s own hands and feet: At what point does a baby become aware of one’s own body parts? Sure, they look at their hands and feet, but they are not born with the awareness that these are parts of their body. The first time I saw A demonstrate any awareness was closer to 5 months, when she would move her hands and watch the movement (and of course, proceed to eat her hands!) This was one of the earliest demonstrations of meta-cognition I’d seen in her.
  2. Awareness of the child in the mirror: As we had a full length mirror right next to A’s changing station, A has been aware of mirrors since her birth. She was always fond of her friend in the mirror, “they paapa” meaning “that baby”. Of course, she didn’t realize that child was her own self for awhile! A simple test to see when your kid is aware of his/her own reflection is to put a hat on them while in front of the mirror. At some point, they try to take the hat off AFTER seeing their reflection in the mirror. This indicates that the child is aware that the child in the mirror is his/her own reflection.
  3. Toilet training: I would say this is a huge demonstration of meta-cognition. If you haven’t already, do check out the potty training checklist on babycenter or anywhere else. When you read it, you will find several checks that all require self-awareness – such as “Knowing how to pull pants up and down” or “Understands the physical signals that mean he has to go and can tell you before it happens or even hold it until he has time to get to the potty.” By understanding the importance of meta-cognition in this aspect, I have begun rethinking the entire process of potty-training!

As I said, there were way more thoughts in my mind once I saw some clear demonstrations of meta-cognition. I am sure these are aspects you have seen in your child too. I’d love to hear back from you – what are some of the ways you observed meta-cognition or self-awareness in your child? What are some of the methods you would use to measure this? Can you observe in yourself, and other adults around you as well? Do share!