A four-year-old interrupted his mother’s phone call: “Can I go outside?” She motioned for him to wait a minute, but he persisted. “Mom, Josh is outside. Can I play on his swings?” When she whispered for him to be quiet until she was off the phone, he walked away, but was back almost immediately. “Now can I go?” After hanging up, she felt frustrated with the interruptions and wondered why her son couldn’t be more considerate and patient.
Children under the age of five or six have a difficult time thinking of other people’s feelings. Young children, as researcher Jean Piaget pointed out, are egocentric; they focus on their own immediate needs and interests, and consider only one side of any situation, their own. They don’t do this to be selfish, although that’s often the result. They’re generally incapable, during their early years, of putting themselves in another person’s place or imagining how other people think and feel. Egocentrism is a normal, although difficult, part of child development.
Parents see egocentric thinking and behavior when children play. One child will grab another’s toy, others will exclude some children from their play, and some call each other names. Young children don’t think about how their words and actions impact others. They say, “You’re not my friend anymore,” or “You can’t play with us,” and often add, “You’re not coming to my birthday party.” When young children play board games, they often don’t play by the rules or think about their opponent’s chances. A child who drew an unfavorable card while playing a game said, “I’m just not listening to this card.”
Parents try to change their children’s actions and teach their children to stick to rules: “Don’t hit; you’ll hurt him,” “He was using that,” or “You should include her in your game.” While these are good strategies, it’s important to remember that young children have limited control over their thinking and often forget to (or just can’t) consider others.
Frequent struggles over your child’s self-centered ways can be very frustrating. You may wonder if your child is particularly unpleasant or if he acts selfish to “get at” you, and you may also wonder if you’ve set firm enough limits. You probably ask yourself, “Do other kids act this way?” When, for instance, your child doesn’t let you rest (“Mom, look at my picture!”) even when you’re not feeling well, you may wonder if your child has any considerate feelings at all.
Although at times your child may act egocentric because you haven’t set sufficient limits, more often he’ll behave this way because he’s just not yet able to consider other people’s needs. Your expectations for his behavior should take into account this stage of development.
It’s very important that you establish limits for your child, be a good role model for showing consideration, and teach him appropriate behavior. But you should also try to be flexible and patient as he grows through this stage and gradually learns to think about others’ feelings and points of view. Of course, it’s unrealistic to think you can always be understanding. You may often become angry at your child’s thoughtless behavior, but understanding that this is a part of normal development is helpful.
One mother became upset and embarrassed as she heard her daughter tell a boy who couldn’t come to her birthday party, “Oh, goody. Now we’ll have enough chairs.” Expect to hear such statements, but also be assured that gradually, as your child matures, he’ll learn to be more considerate of others’ feelings.