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3 - 5 min read

Our Children May Be Self-Centered, But They Aren't Selfish

Children see the world through the lens of self and that is actually by design. Here's why.

Want to raise a kind, empathetic, and polite child? Me too.

Here’s the thing, though, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither is our child’s brain.

It takes 25 years for the regions responsible for emotional regulation, impulse control, and executive functioning to fully develop, and even beyond then, the brain is a cultural organ, both adaptable and changeable. 

Most of the time, the things we discipline in our children are actually developmental. We worry they won’t learn the lessons and be a respectful human. Undeniably, our own discomfort becomes another high motivator for us to intervene. Every time our child snatches a toy or melts down or forgets to say “thank you,” we see it as an invitation to jump into action. 

But Mother Nature is one smart mama. She made our children consciously, with great thought as to the design. 

Our babies leave the internal womb and expect an external one. They are incredibly egocentric. It’s all about them. Just ask any sleep-deprived, exhausted, overwhelmed parent. They know. 

Are our babies selfish, though? Not intentionally. They are egocentric in order to get their needs met via their primary attachments, a vital aspect of survival as a new human on this Earth. 

This wired nature doesn’t cease to exist when our kiddos turn two or four or six. Again, by design. 

Children see the world through the lens of self. According to them, the way they feel, think, see, and do is the same way that you do too. Considering things from another’s point of view is a skill that develops over time. 

While toddlers tend to live in their own little bubble - everything has to do with them, everything on their schedule, everything must be done their way - it doesn’t mean we have rude, self-absorbed offspring. 

We are raising children who will one day be adults with adult-sized brains that function in adult-like ways, but that day isn’t today. Today, in front of us, we have a child. 

Egocentric Thinking 

Egocentric thinking is the normal tendency for a young child to see everything that happens as it relates to him- or herself. Let’s give some common examples here. 

  • You have had a hard day and are visibly emotional. Your child offers to comfort you by giving you her favorite stuffed animal with the reasoning that the stuffie helps her feel better so it will help you feel better, too. 
  • Your child is busy playing with blocks. Grandma arrives and excitedly says, “Hello.” Your child doesn’t respond because he is immersed in what he is doing, and in his world, it isn’t a priority to respond (because he is unable to see it from Grandma’s perspective). 
  • At a playdate, your child sees another child with a toy that she wants and so she snatches it as her own. You follow up with, “You took Sam’s toy. How do you think he feels?” Your child has no idea how Sam feels. What your child does know is that she wanted the toy, took the toy, and now she feels good. 
  • The woman at the grocery checkout hands your child a sticker. He is so excited and focused on sticking it to his shirt that it doesn’t occur to him to say, “Thank you.” This isn’t him being ungrateful, this is him feeling and thinking one pure emotion and thought at a time. 
  • Another way egocentric thinking may arise in our children is that they believe things happen because of them. They feel responsible if something good happens, and they feel blameworthy if something bad happens.

These behaviors are typical and developmentally appropriate for young children. When we attempt to punish or punitively demand and command over our children, we end up causing more harm than good. Instead of nurturing the development of higher brain regions responsible for all these good life skills, we end up hindering them. We cannot rush or force behavior that the brain isn’t ready for. 

3 Ways To Nourish Development

So what is our role? What can we do as parents? 

Well, we aren’t helpless, and we don’t have to sit idly by when our child hits another, or takes a toy, or is caught up in their world. 

It is how we approach their behavior that counts. In following some of these tips, we can assist development, instead of working against it, so that optimal circuits are created for empathy, compassion, and respect. 

1. Model behaviors

Modelling the behavior you want to see in your child is most effective. They say that more is caught than taught. So, if you desire your child to greet family members or apologize or give gratitude, model this, and when they're developmentally ready, they will genuinely do the same (rather than just saying words you’ve told them to say). ⠀⠀⠀

2. Validate feelings⠀⠀

When our children (and us) understand what we are feeling, then we can better manage it. Through daily rituals in a Time-In space, you and your child pave the way for not only understanding the self (emotion sensations and calming tools) but also for relating to others (noticing how others feel and making repairs). 

3. Set boundaries

Boundaries are not what our children can’t do. Boundaries are what we will do. Set boundaries around certain behaviors as needed. These may look like this: 

  • Your child takes a toy from her sibling’s hands: I see you really wanted that block. It is so hard to wait. I will help you hand the block to your sister, and you can have it when she is done. What will we do while we wait?
  • Your child hits you when angry: I see something feels hard. I won’t let you hit me. I will keep us safe. I am here for you. 

Egocentric behavior is part of the journey. When we meet our children with compassion, empathy, and respect, they will reflect it back. 

When you practice seeing things from your child’s view, they will learn those skills, too. 

Parent + Child = Relationship. We are in relationship with one another. Them and us. 

Trust your instincts. Trust your child’s journey. And trust the process. Because it is a process.

Learn to discipline children without yelling or shame.

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Ashley Patek is the Content Director for Generation Mindful. Ashley is an occupational therapist, certified lifestyle/parenting coach, and mama to four children; two boys and two daughters born to Heaven. She believes that parenting starts with us as parents and focuses on the whole-parent, whole-child, and whole-family dynamic.