What really bugs parents of young children? The public display of embarrassing behaviors that arise from egocentricity.
An example from my files: "What do you do about greediness in children? My 4-year-old grabbed all the candy out of a dish at my mother's house. She didn't even eat it but didn't want her cousins to get any. When she plays with other children she tries to take all the toys or all the "good" ones first. Watching this bothers me but I'm not sure what to do. I hate to correct her in front of her cousins and friends but I am afraid nobody will want to play with her. My husband says ignore it because it's just a phase."
Both parents are right. It is a phase. It is bothersome to watch.
Preschool children are egocentric-they believe the universe revolves around them. When you're four you think, "Why shouldn't I take all the candy? I want it!"
What happens between the age of egocentricity and adulthood? Children learn how the world works. They learn this in multiple ways.
The best teachers are peers. Kids learn in preschool and play groups that if they don't share nobody will want to play with them. They observe how children their age or a bit older do the right thing like take one or two candies and share rather than hoard toys.
But parents and teachers also have a vital role to play. We grownups both show and tell children the RULES. We show how we take one candy and leave the rest for others. We also teach children the rules by explicitly telling them what a rule is and why it's important to obey them. No tirades or lengthy explanations of how rules are important to civilization. Simply: "No hitting! The rule is no hitting! If you hit you will be removed from the other children."
Parents are correctly reluctant to embarrass children in front of their friends. They don't want to call attention to a child's mistakes lest their friends taunt or tease.
However ignoring "bad" behavior gives the message that the behavior is OK by us. The trick is to state the rule, rather than criticizing the child. The wise parent says, "The rule is we only take one candy out of the dish."
Why is stating the rule such a useful parental ploy? It is impersonal because a rule refers to everybody. It is not hurtful. It does not tell the assembled crowd how disobedient Susan is. But it does call attention to what behavior is approved.
Other useful strategies include the gentle reminder, role-playing, and "How would you feel if...?" The next time you take Little Miss Greedy to grandma's house remind your her that big kids don't grab all the candy because it's against the rule. You can make a game out of learning and rehearsing good play manners by pretending to be your daughter's little friend and taking turns sharing toys. You can ask your daughter about play situations, both how she would feel if someone grabbed all the toys and what would be a better way.
Greediness (and other egocentric behaviors, like shoving another child out of the way to get someplace first) is a common and expectable behavior in preschoolers. They grow out of it. But greedy tots still need to hear the rules. Distraction, removal, and ignoring mild misbehaviors are all useful techniques when dealing with babies and toddlers. But preschoolers need many reminders of the rules before they learn them, so ignoring bothersome behaviors at this age is counterproductive.
Sometimes life situations make children more "grabby." A problem at home that preoccupies the parents or the birth of a sibling could cause the child to feel displaced which translates into feeling needy. Some extra one-on-one time with each parent can work wonders.
Finally, it's pretty common for parents to assume bothersome egocentricities means delinquent behavior in the future. They envision an older Susan shoplifting candy bars from the drug store. Not to worry. Kids don't learn the rules overnight but all normal children will learn the rules.
My daughter told me how Jeremy behaved at a brunch when he was almost four. He spotted a two-pound slab of fudge at the end of the table and was told after he ate his food he could have a piece. Jeremy raced through his meal and my daughter had to intervene when she noticed him using a plastic knife to saw the slab in half so he could get his "piece" of fudge. Greedy? Yes. Delinquent? No.
Dr. Heins is a pediatrician, parent, grandparent, and the founder and CEO of ParentKidsRight.com. She welcomes your parenting questions. Email info@ParentKidsRight.com for a professional, personal, and private answer to your questions.