Last reviewed 22 November 2019

Babies are born completely egocentric but over time develop the ability to see situations from others’ viewpoints. Liz Hodgman, Childcare Consultant, looks at how children’s egocentrism declines as their empathy and social skills develop and how childcare practitioners can support this process.

What is egocentrism?

There are times when we can all behave egotistically, putting ourselves first. But this is very different from egocentrism which is a developmental stage that we pass through.

Egocentrism is a child’s inability to see a situation and their environment from anyone else’s perspective. They think that everyone sees, hears and feels exactly as they do.

Babies are born completely egocentric but this is a survival mechanism. In order to survive they need milk, nappy changes, warmth and love. To gain this they have developed an ear-piercing cry that ensures the altruism of their parents and the meeting of their needs.

It was the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget’s (9 August 1896–16 September 1980) theory of cognitive development that become popular in the 1960s that really drew attention to egocentrism. He believed that a child’s level of egocentrism directly related to their level of cognitive development. Children aged 0–2 years were in the sensorimotor stage; they had yet to develop the understanding of object permanence (that things exist even if you cannot see them) and were learning to recognise and interact with their environment. During the preoperational stage, ages 2–6 years, children are gaining the ability to represent the world in symbols and images, their language and thinking skills are developing but they are still very egocentric, unable to see from others’ viewpoints.

In the concrete operational stage, ages 7–12 years, children begin to understand how others might feel and think, and they become less egocentric. They start to understand that they have their own unique thoughts and that not everyone will have feelings, thoughts and opinions the same as them.

It is only in the formal operational stage, 12 years and upwards, that children (teens) begin to think about things in a more moral, ethical, philosophical and political way. They have gained skills to reason with abstract concepts and theories and this further helps the decline of their egocentrism. They have finally learnt to see situations from many perspectives.

Piaget’s theories have been challenged over the years; Flavell, Isaacs, Vvgotsky and Deutsch all produced theories on egocentrism. For example, Isaacs felt that young children were self-centred and Vvgotsky believed that egocentric language was actually the child thinking out loud as they had yet to develop internal thinking.

In order for a child to become less egocentric they will need to develop empathy. This is the the ability to imagine how someone else is feeling in a particular situation and respond with care. It is a very complex skill to develop. Being able to empathise with another person means that a child understands that he/she is a separate individual, with different thoughts and feelings from others. They need to be able to recognise the common feelings that we all experience; for example, happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, disappointment, etc. They need to be able to observe a situation and imagine how they would be feeling at that moment; for example watching a child saying goodbye to their mother at the provision. The final element is being able to respond appropriately to what they have observed and understood. So in the example this could be providing comfort to the child who has left their mum, maybe offering them a cuddly toy.

How can practitioners support children to become less egocentric?

Piaget and Deutsch both believed that the more time and interaction young children had with their peers then the less egocentric their thoughts and speech would become.

Demonstrating empathy to the children every day will help them to learn the skills and develop their own. In order to be empathetic parents and staff have to understand how a child develops and use this knowledge. For example, understanding when it is likely a child will be able to have the cognitive skills to share a toy.

Helping the children learn to share is often a goal of childcare staff, but given the theory of egocentrism, a two-year-old not sharing is normal behaviour. They are unable to empathise with the crying toddler who also wants the toy. They have no understanding of the upset they are causing, they have the toy and they are happy. They can only see the situation from their own viewpoint. Practitioners are advised to find ways to avoid the upset of non-sharing with young pre-schoolers as they are too young cognitively to learn the skills. Consider using a giant egg timer for each child’s turn on a piece of equipment or activity. Providing several copies of resources helps to reduce the conflict, for example having several dolls pushchairs. Show empathy to all the children, sharers and non-sharers and remember they are not being naughty, they have just not yet developed the skills they need to share. This normally happens around school ages (4 years+).

Encouraging or insisting a child says “sorry” when they have hurt another child does little to help them understand the consequences of their actions or take any responsibility for them. It certainly will not help them to become empathetic. Practitioners are advised to encourage the child to think about how the other child is feeling, explain why the child is crying because they are hurt and how they got hurt. This will help the child to understand the consequences of their actions.

Supporting parents

Practitioners can support parents to develop empathy in their child. They can also help parents to have realistic expectations of their child’s personal, social and emotional skills.

For example, supporting parents to understand that sibling rivalry is all part of egocentrism and the developmental stages their child is passing through. A toddler will not be able to understand that this new baby sibling who has arrived has needs that must be met. He will still be very egocentric and this can result in parents thinking their child is demanding and not loving towards their new sibling. Practitioners can support parents to manage this situation.