Author: Alison Johnson
Every parent knows it: young kids can be very selfish. They're often looking out for themselves, whether it's grabbing the best toy or refusing to share a treat with another child.
It can be upsetting, but parents might take heart in a new German study that shows such "bad" behavior may not have much to do a child's ability to know "fair" and "unfair" behavior. Instead, it might be a function of an immature brain. Specifically, researchers point to the development of the prefrontal cortex, part of the brain involved in self-control, which matures later than other areas of the brain.
Researchers found young kids' ability to do the right thing in non-self-serving moments -- situations where they wouldn't see a personal benefit from an action -- increased between the ages of 6 and 13. So a child might actually understand what's right but not have the self-control to act on that.
Put another way: There's a difference between "I'm grabbing this toy because I have no clue what the social protocol is here" and "I know I'm not supposed to grab this toy, but I just can't help myself." If true, that "highlights the importance of helping children act on what they already know," says Dr. Nikolaus Steinbeis, the study's lead author.
So what can parents do to help kids develop more self-control? Early childhood educators stress the importance of modeling good behavior, gently correcting selfish actions and helping a child see other people's point of view. If little Bobby snatches little Susie's toy, for example, he won't learn much if a parent just gets furious and snatches it back. Instead, he should return it himself and be encouraged to consider how Susie felt (if there's a tantrum, that conversation can come later). Ideally, Susie could tell him herself.
At home, parents shouldn't let kids get away with taking things without asking, or damaging items without apologizing or trying to fix them. A parent also should be careful not to constantly reward kids for good behavior; otherwise, they might make decisions based on getting a reward, not because they just want to do the right thing. Giving back to others via community service projects is another way to show kids that they can find joy without a tangible personal benefit.
Finally, just keep in mind that your kid may not have a mean streak. He or she just may be immature -- and in need of your guidance more than ever.