Theoretical work in both psychology and sociology accords self-concept a critical role in organizing past behavior and in directing future behavior. Self-concept is viewed broadly as the meeting ground of the individual and society and represents the individual’s efforts to find personal meaning and understanding. Self-concept has been studied with respect to virtually every conceivable domain of behavior, including such diverse concerns as cognitive ability and competence, moral behavior, occupational choice, delinquency and deviance, friendship patterns, family relations, and health and adjustment. The implicit view of many of these studies, and the one proposed here, is that self-concept is not incidental to the stream of behavior but functions to mediate and regulate the stimuli provided by the environment. Self-concept is not the only psychological structure implicated in guiding behavior, but it is a central one. In this chapter we explore the development of self-concept during middle childhood, focusing on both the content of self-concept—what children understand about themselves—and the function of self-concept—how it may control or regulate behavior.

Self-understanding and self-regulation have nearly always been treated as independent, and virtually no research relates the two. Each is important for middle childhood, and each could have been the focus of a separate chapter. We discuss them together to highlight the idea that the two areas are interdependent. This interdependence is particularly evident during middle childhood.

In recent efforts to understand the self and to link it to the regulation of behavior, it is connected with a hyphen to an ever-increasing set of phenomena. There are studies not only of self-concept, self-esteem, and self-regulation but also self-understanding, self-awareness, self-evaluation, self-monitoring, self-presentation, self-consciousness, self-control, and self-management. This recent surge of interest in the self is reflected in several thorough collections of empirical and theoretical work, including Bandura (1978), Craighead et al. (1978), Damon and Hart (1982), Flavell and Ross (1981), Harter (1983b), Lynch et al. (1981), Rosenberg (1979), Rosenberg and Kaplan (1982), Suls (1982), and Wegner and Vallacher (1980).