Understanding Egocentrism

Understanding Egocentrism

Is your preschooler reluctant to share his toys with other children?  Does he seem insensitive and even inconsiderate with respect to other people’s feelings?  If so, don’t condemn him for being selfish and self-centered.  He is merely egocentric, and that is not a personality flaw but simply a perfectly normal cognitive limitation.

While preschoolers are clearly capable of thinking, they are not yet capable of thinking clearly.  The mental machinery at this point in development is still crude and unsophisticated, so there are many things the mind of a preschooler just can’t do.   And one of those things involves taking the perspective of another person.

For instance, let’s say a four-year-old is on the telephone with Grandma.  Grandma asks, “Did you have fun at Romp n’ Roll today?”  The four-year-old nods his head in response.  He can’t get outside his own head, put himself in Grandma’s position, look at the situation from her point of view, and realize that nodding his head isn’t getting the message across.  As far as he’s concerned, he is replying appropriately.

So let’s say your little one refuses to allow another child to play with one of his toys.  You pull him aside and ask, “How do you think Johnny feels when you tell him he can’t play?  Don’t you think it would be a good idea if you and Johnny took turns?”  Well, the fact is that he doesn’t care how Johnny feels.  And no, since he has the toy, he definitely does not think it is a good idea to let it go.

I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t encourage your preschooler to be generous and considerate.  And I would certainly suggest that you model these traits for your child as much as possible.  But I would advise that you avoid chastising him too harshly for not doing something he has not yet developed the ability to do.  If you can be patient and understanding, I assure you your encouragement and modeling will pay off in another couple of years.

Michael K. Meyerhoff, Ed.D. (a.k.a. “Dr. Mike”) is a member of the management team at Romp n’ Roll.  After receiving his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Columbia University, he earned his master’s and doctorate degrees in human development from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he also held a position as a researcher with the Harvard Preschool Project.  He may be contacted via e-mail at drmike@romproll.com.