I can recall the first five or six years of my life being glorious, well, what I can remember of them anyway.

From what I recall, to me, the world was all about me. I was the center of it and I knew it, especially since the adults around me tended to reinforce that. Being an only child is something I'm certain contributed to my prolonged sense of entitlement as being more important than anything I saw. It diminished, rather quickly, around the age of 10 from what I can remember and conversations with my parents.

Is there an age where complete self-involvement begin to subside, as a child naturally begins to think of others with and before themselves and their needs? At some point, a child's idle conversation should strive to be more engaging of others, rather than self-narrative, right around the point that a child realizes that stating their immediate needs or desires might not be appropriate due to the circumstances at hand.

I know that being an only child has quite a bit to do with this. When you're the oldest, and a new sibling comes into your life, you get less attention and that's just something you have to deal with. Being born already having a sibling makes this just something that's always been the way it is.

Still, at what age (only child or not, though I suspect it might differ) should I be concerned that a child is still excessively self-involved and indulgent, and what can I do as a parent to help them to a healthier level of it?

  • 1
    I know some adults that are still completely self-absorbed. Mar 8 '14 at 15:03
  • @balancedmama The irony of you beginning that sentence with I did not escape me, well played.
    – Tim Post
    Mar 9 '14 at 5:51

Stages of Development

Children begin to explore the perspectives of others through pretend play in the ages of 2-6. This is still very egocentric - when a girl pretends to be mother to her doll, it is still about her and not about her mother - it is an early exploration of relationship, and it is the start of the journey toward empathy. (Piaget - pre-operational stage, Erikson - play age)

Awareness of the perspectives of others begins to grow during the ages of 6-12. This is when children typically go to school and are surrounded by others their own age, which makes empathy easier as they are related to their school friends on so many levels (physical development, intellectual development, social development). Even without the school experience, though, children's brains develop during this period to begin considering more than one point of view. Their ability to connect actions to consequences is growing, though it won't be fully developed until their early 20s. (Piaget - concrete stage, Erikson - school age)

Abstract reasoning does not begin to develop until adolescence. At this point, young people develop hypothetical and critical thinking (Piaget) and begin to have a sense of the complexity of life and their small part in it (Erikson). This is when identity development begins in earnest - we begin to learn who we are in relationship to others. An understanding of the complexity of relationships happens in early adulthood (20s), and true caritas begins to develop in the late 20s and onward (Erikson).

Promoting development

People develop at their own speeds, and they develop in relationship to others. You cannot teach development so much as you can provide opportunities for it to happen. Some suggestions:

  • Exposure to others We learn about ourselves through our relationships. When a friend does something that makes us angry, for example, we learn something about our own beliefs. We also learn how to stand up for ourselves and to negotiate boundaries.
  • Exposure to individuals outside of groups Often children are only exposed to others at school or in teams, where groupthink may prevail. Kids make choices in order to fit in that they might not away from the group. Group experience is important for social development, but it is not where empathy is likely to develop best. Give your child exposure to individuals. Maybe there is a grandparent they can spend a few hours a month with one-on-one. When you are out with your child in public, don't interact with others for him - make your child order his own food, ask the librarian for the book he needs, answer the doctor's questions, say thank you to people who provide any sort of service.
  • Notice the perspective of others out loud whenever you are together Make it a habit when you are out with your child to comment on the experiences of others that you cross paths with: "That saleswoman was really helpful." "That customer is very grumpy - I wonder if he is having a bad day or if he is always like that." "Cleaning up after people all day would be really hard work." "I wonder what it feels like to be the only black person in an office full of white people."
  • Model Model the behaviors you would like your child to develop by the time he reaches maturity. If you lapse, talk about your lapse and how it made you feel.
  • Talk about behaviors you think are inappropriate When your child does something that reflects a lack of maturity as compared to others his age, talk to him about it. Show him another way to view the same situation. "When someone does something that makes you angry, instead of yelling at her, sometimes it helps to take a few minutes to think about why she did it - she might have had good intentions."
  • Don't over-talk Kids are observant, and the desire to fit in is great. They will learn far more from learning to observe wellnthan they will from adults preaching at them.

When to worry

You should consider getting outside help if

  • your child's maturity seems to be far behind others his age

  • your child shows signs of sociopathy - a disregard for the right of others or lack of conscience


Erikson's Psychosocial Stages (Erik Erikson)

Piaget Stages of Development (Jean Paiget )

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