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When does it stop being all about “me”? — Good Parenting

Welcome to Good Parenting, our weekly online series on parenting advice with Annapolis, Maryland, expert Dr. Deborah Wood.

Headshot2011When does it stop being all about “me”? — Good Parneting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

My son just turned 3. Can you give me some tips for helping him be more polite? He’s not a baby anymore, so I would expect him to be able to wait until his father and I have finished a conversation before he tries to speak with one of us. Also, if another child is around, he is still grabbing toys before asking. He speaks pretty well, so I would think he could understand when I tell him not to do these things.

Need Soft Skills Tips

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Dear NSST,

At the tender age of 3, your son still has a few years of being limited to his own perspective. That is, any situation will be perceived only one way by him – the way that works out best for himself. When he has a pressing thought to share with you, he assumes you will give him full attention to hear it. If another person, especially a child near his age, is holding an attractive object, he can readily imagine himself enjoying that object, without any regard to how that might affect the other child.

Jean Piaget, whose theories are considered to be essential to the field of child development, would put your son in the developmental stage of “Pre-Operational.” A 3-year-old thinks in very concrete terms – what do I need to do right now in order to get what I want right now (i.e.: grab the toy). In the next stage “Concrete Operations,” he will be better able to apply the social rules you have modeled for him and guided him with to the many different social situations in which he finds himself. A child of 2 to 7 years is still “ego-centric” which means his idea of what someone else might think is pretty much along the lines of what he himself is thinking. For example, he believes that of course you would want to hear his pressing thought more than you would want to finish your conversation with his father. And if another child has an interesting toy, of course that child would want your son to have it. Piaget created an experiment to help “prove” that perspective is tough for young children. You can watch a video of the Three Mountains Test here.

At age 3 it is quite common for children to be interested in other children but challenged by such things as waiting for a turn or anticipating which of their actions might please or displease another person. By around age 4, children are becoming more and more cooperative with one another. But still, the motivation seems to be that, “if I take turns with the other child I will have a playmate to help play out my ideas.” Young children benefit from an adult’s guidance if things aren’t working out – they may need prompting to “ask if he’s finished” or “let her know you weren’t finished” with a desired toy. Adults can also monitor fatigue, hunger, and other conditions which make it even more difficult for children to practice their growing social skills.

Try to take your child’s perspective while balancing the needs of everyone concerned. Accept that your child cannot imagine how his problem looks from another person’s point of view. Use simple language to explain a conflicting point of view, but if he is becoming upset you should distract him (offer a substitute toy for example) and if necessary remove him from the situation.

Social skills are indeed learned, but apparently depend on the maturing physiology of the brain. It’s easier to observe the progression of physical skills – a young 3-year-old struggles to coordinate arms and legs for pumping a swing, but at age 4, you have to make sure he doesn’t use his mastery of swinging skills to launch himself across the backyard. Social skills, likewise, will go through a predictable sequence of stages. Somewhere around the age 7 he suddenly will be capable of putting others’ needs before his own.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com

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