Why doesn’t my child think about other people’s feelings?

A three and one-half-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 ride my bike?” 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 are generally incapable, during their early years, of putting themselves in another person’s place or imagining how other people think. 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 hit and call each other names, two children will discuss the faults of a third who stands next to them. When young children play board games, they often cheat, not caring 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”, “You should include her in your game.” Yet children have limited control over their thinking and often forget to (or just can’t) consider others.

Frequent struggles over a child’s self-centered ways can be very frustrating for parents. They may wonder if he is particularly unpleasant or if he acts selfish to “get at” them, and they may also wonder if they’ve set firm enough limits: “Do other children act this way?” When, for instance, a child doesn’t let his mother rest (“Mom, look at my picture!”) even when she’s not feeling well, she may wonder if her child has any considerate feelings at all.

Although at times your child may act egocentric because you have not set sufficient limits, more often he’ll behave this way because he’s not yet able to consider other people’s needs. Your expectations for his behavior should take into account this stage of development. If you always expect him to be polite and considerate, you and he will find yourselves in constant conflict.

It’s very important that you establish limits for your child and try to 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 often may become angry at his thoughtless behavior, but understanding that this is a part of normal development is helpful. One mother became particularly upset and embarrassed as she heard her daughter tell a boy who could not come to her birthday party, “Oh, goody. Now we’ll have enough chairs.” Expect to hear such statements, but also be assured that eventually your child will learn to be more considerate.

 Picture Credit : Google