Why Toddlers Are Selfish – or are they?

Do you ever find yourself asking yourself why it feels like my 2- or 3-year-old doesn’t care about anyone but them? The good news is there’s a scientific reason for it!

In a recent study published in the Nature Communication, it’s not until a child has reached the age of 4 years old that they begin to empathize, or show & understand what it might be like to be in someone else’s shoes. I think I can speak freely for the most parent of a toddler or pre-schoolers when I say, darn!

The researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences (MPI CBS) in Leipzig and at Leiden University stated that this kind of social awareness comes from the maturation of a critical fibre connection in the brain, which doesn’t happen until age 4.

Behind The Science

There is a region located at the back of the temporal lobe which is responsible for all the thinking we do about others and their thoughts. A region in the frontal lobe is involved in helping people understand what the real world (not just their world) is and about the opinions of others. These two lobes stay separate before that magic age of 4 when they have grown and developed and can attribute thoughts and beliefs to others—characterized when we have the understanding that others’ beliefs can be different from their own.

What you can do to prevent selfish toddler behaviour?

So, what exactly does all this mean, and as parents, what can we do to help our children? It means that before the age 4, kids are unable to comprehend that thoughts could exist independently of what they see and know about their world. For example, a 3-year-old who found a box of chocolates filled with pencils instead would think that every child would expect to find pencils inside a chocolate box, even if they hadn’t had the same experience.

Despite the science, I don’t feel this is entirely true. My children at their younger ages of 4 & below were all often sweet and caring, especially when I was pregnant with their siblings. When I was expecting. They’d bring me a snack, or just cuddle up with me and pet my belly and say, “I love you, Baby.” So for me, that was good enough!

Encouraging empathy to help prevent selfish behaviour in toddlers

I suppose the next question you have is, does this mean we can’t teach our children empathy or care before four years old? My belief is I don’t believe that is correct, you can. I feel that our children are mirrors of our behaviour, so what they see, they become. Therefore, if you wish to your child to be a kind, caring and loving human, then show them this. They naturally copy you, which means that when they do turn 4, they already have an understanding on a subconscious level of what it means to be that kind caring child. It is so much easier for them rather than them having to retrain their thinking at an older age when they created habits.

Behaviour is also very closely linked to sleep. If you are finding your toddler is challenging you at every turn, I’d suggest you start by looking at the quantity and quality of the sleep they are getting, proving that improved sleep has a massive & positive outcome of behaviour.

Call me for help!

If you wish to discuss behaviour or sleep to talk about why is it that toddlers are selfish then please do contact me via email or book a call with as I offer a free 15 min introductory call me to discuss your child’s sleep problems. I look forward to hearing from you!