Young children are by nature self-centred, and childcarers must understand this if they are to help them develop maturity, writes Dr Richard Woolfson
As you'll have already discovered in the nursery, the typical two-year-old is very self-absorbed. When she wants a toy to play with, for example, she expects to get it right away and she isn't bothered by the fact that another child is already playing with it or that you've already told her she can't play with it until later.
As far as the egocentric toddler is concerned, she comes first. The thoughts and feelings of anybody else do not matter.
And her self-absorption goes further than just wanting to have her own way in your nursery. If you have the cheek to prevent her, the typical two-year-old toddler may erupt with temper. It's almost as if she is outraged by your impertinence at not doing what she wants when she wants you to. The determination of a furious egocentric toddler knows no limits. She may howl the place down if her needs are not immediately met, totally oblivious to the anxious stares of the other children in the nursery.
Although this type of behaviour in an adult would be described as selfishness, that description doesn't apply when it comes to the same actions in a two-year-old. Her behaviour is 'egocentric' in the true sense of the word, rather than 'selfish' in the adult sense of the word. A toddler is egocentric because she literally cannot understand anybody else's point of view.
Many psychological investigations confirm that children of this age struggle to consider how other people think and feel. This stage of egocentricity - which may last until around the age of three or four years - can be expressed in a number of different ways, as follows.
- Frustration: A toddler who is not allowed to do as she pleases may explode with frustration. Her egocentricity means that she is shocked the moment she finds that her wishes are blocked, whether by nursery staff or because she is physically unable to achieve her target. The sudden surge of frustration that then overwhelms her stems from her complete disbelief that she can't get her own way.
- Indifference: Watch toddlers playing alongside one another in the nursery and you will soon see how their self-centredness is expressed as complete indifference to each other's discomfort. One child will snatch a toy from another child's hand without asking, simply because she wants to have it. The child who takes the toy without permission probably will not give a backward glance to the other child. That's because she can't understand any perspective except her own.
- Anger: When you have to draw the line with a two-year-old in the nursery (even when you only do so because she is about to place herself in danger), she will be furious with you. Temper tantrums are very common in toddlers precisely for this reason. The child cannot accept that you have decided to set a limit upon her behaviour; from her point of view her feelings come first, and it does not matter one jot to her that you are the nursery nurse and she is the child.
- Possessiveness: Sharing can be very difficult for a toddler, because she likes to cling on to her possessions. For a child to share, she has to be willing to part with a toy that she likes herself and she has to trust that the other child will return the toy to her when she wants.
This is perhaps too much for an egocentric two-year-old to deal with. Hence, sharing is very uncommon at this stage of development.