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Little Kids, Big Egos

"I'm three years old and I know my ABC's and I can run real fast! I like pizza and I can count to ten  -- want to hear me? I love my cat and I can climb to the top of the jungle gym  -- I'm not scared! I'm never scared! I'm always happy and I'm really strong."

Sound familiar? This is the way a typical 3- or 4-year-old describes herself. Kids this age feel they can do anything, when of course the truth is just the opposite.

[STYLE {An exalted sense of self } {SECTION}]Why do preschoolers always think they're so capable of things they're clearly not? One reason is that kids this age tend to focus on just one aspect of a situation. Consider the 5-year-old who's bedazzled by a group of teenage boys daring each other to jump off a high diving board. Given the chance (and this is why you have to be so vigilant with little kids), he'd probably want to try it too, climbing the many steps to the top and plunging into the water. He wouldn't stop to compare his own small size with that of the older boys. He'd just focus on his one interest: imitating them.

[STYLE {The upside of overconfidence } {SECTION}]Research has shown that even when preschoolers fail at a task several times, they think they'll get it right the next time they try. In a way, this overestimation of their capabilities is a gift because they never give up.

It's one key to success, but it can lead kids into dangerous situations. Only with age and experience do children begin to distinguish their own abilities and take many factors into account in figuring out what they're capable of. By the time they're 8 or so, they'll be able to recognize that their peers are better  -- and worse  -- at some things than they are, and gauge what's possible accordingly.

Until then, though, they don't even bother comparing themselves with friends. Preschoolers rarely think or say things like "She's a better bowler than I am" because they simply don't take these discrepancies into consideration. They think they're terrific. And that's all that matters.

—from Einstein Never Used Flash Cards by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Ph.D., with Diane Eyer, Ph.D. (published in October by Rodale)

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