"That person is so self-centred! ", how many times have we heard that phrase? Perhaps talking with our friends or acquaintances, we realise that self-centred means being the centre of attention. For us adults this is certainly the case, but when the term ‘egocentric’ is used to refer to a child, then the meaning changes.
Jean Piaget, a leading twentieth century psychologist who studied child development, carried out several observational studies on children and coined the term “infantile egocentrism". By this he meant their inability to consider or understand someone else’s point of view and this involves both the cognitive and strictly social arenas. This is not a "choice" insomuch as children are all born with a "self-centred way of thinking and acting", which is a normal, automatic part of early childhood behaviour; only with cognitive, moral and social development do they gradually acquire the ability to decentre and embrace a broader vision of the world that also includes other people’s opinions. This is obviously part of the whole process of growing up, and there is no "on/ off” switch, so their experiences, the role of adults, their own personal development and the challenges they encounter along the way are all very important.
The shift from "I" to "We"
Newborn babies’ only goal is to thrive, both physically and mentally: this means that especially in the first few months of life, their attention is focused on ensuring the satisfaction of their needs: the need to be cared for and looked after, the need to be protected and accepted. Up until three/four months of age, children cannot distinguish themselves from the world around them, even though they are very aware of their own needs and actively involved in ensuring these are met (they cry to signal hunger, discomfort, tiredness, or if they need to be changed). They know that if they cry, something will come to soothe them, but they have no idea who or what: they perceive it through their body and their sight, also recognising the smell of the person caring for them.
During this stage, the "ego" is therefore very strong, as the baby's need to ensure they continue to thrive cannot and must not leave room for other goals. This is entirely in line with what Mother Nature planned for our survival, so newborns are in an initial stage defined by Jean Piaget as “absolute egocentrism": I try to get what I need and I cannot leave room for others.
At around eight/nine months old, children start to acquire a different awareness of the outside world, and indeed this stage also corresponds with the emergence of stranger anxiety (for more in-depth reading, see https://
itdementoni.com/blogs/piccole-grandi-conquiste/chi-va-la-la-paura-deNestraneo) whereby children make an initial distinction between who is familiar and part of their world, and who on the other hand is considered a stranger. Generally around eighteen months there is significant progress and, thanks also to a series of achievements and abilities, both social and cognitive, including language expansion, your child will begin to grasp the fact that other realities than their own subjective experience can exist; this can be seen in the way they will test certain rules laid down by grown-ups, if they are with others they will realise that there are different ways of doing things and playing and, above all, they will become very possessive of all that is theirs: "this is mine! " is a phrase you will hear a lot for several years to come.
This does not mean that children are "self-centred", but simply that they do not yet have the ability to act based on a participatory view that embraces the needs and ideas of others.
The start of nursery school at around three years of age allows children to experience being a social actor in a clearly defined group of peers: there will be rules and procedures to follow, taking turns in playing, and shared fun, which all lets them test new ways of relating to and behaving with others. Thus, the shift from "I" to "We" is neither quick nor automatic.
It starts, for example, with sharing toys, but children must eventually realise that there are other preferences, opinions and needs that can differ from their own, and this is something they generally grasp around 7 years of age, which Piaget indicated as the stage at which children leave behind infantile egocentrism. Naturally, the start of primary school provides a strong stimulus in this direction and this is the period when, as parents, you will often hear questions like "But why does my classmate do that?", or you may notice that your child starts to use terms they have heard uttered by their friends, as they start to try out new points of view.
How to help children leave behind infantile egocentrism?
Leaving aside the fact that this represents a normal stage of individual development, there are a few little steps we can take to help our children make this shift to "You" and "Us" without too much difficulty.
- If possible, allow them from a young age to socialise with other children, at the play park, with neighbours’ children, or their cousins, as these are valuable encounters that offer lots of social and behavioural experience.
- As always, imitation and example are milestones for their development: observing adults share and collaborate allows children to learn to do likewise.
- Do not insist too forcefully that they share a toy, as sometimes children cannot understand the reason or virtue of such a gesture, precisely because they still lack the necessary maturity.
A final aspect concerns communication: the more words they know and the more thoughts they have, the more your child will be stimulated to talk, to listen to your words and stories, and the more easily they will learn to grasp different sounds, new words and, as a result, to develop more complex thoughts. This will inevitably lead to an expansion of their world, a fundamental prerequisite that allows them to concentrate not only "I" but also on "We".