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A 2-year-old who clings tightly to dolls under each arm, refusing to share, is doing exactly what she's supposed to do.

She's being egocentric.

That's fine for a few years. But at some point we want children who look beyond themselves, who care about others. Who understand the spirit of Christmas giving.

So how do they get beyond this self-absorption?

First, parents should recognize that egocentricity is a stage of moral development, said Tamar Meyer, director of the University at Buffalo Child Care Center.

"It says, 'I am the center of the universe and everything that happens is because of me, about me,' " she said. "It comes from the baby being so bonded to her mother. It's almost like being one person. The child spends the formative years developing a separation of self.

"In actual fact, I wouldn't expect the very young to have generous tendencies," said Dr. Meyer. "With a group of toddlers, for example, I'd be sure to have lots of toys that are the same instead of forcing them to share."

But things should start changing by age 6 or 7.

"That's when they start developing into what I'd call an empathetic human," she said.

And there's nothing surprising in what happens then -- they learn by watching the significant adults in their life.

"We could teach a unit on sharing," she said, "but if we don't show it in our behavior, that lesson won't mean anything."

And any lesson means twice as much when the child participates and makes some decisions, whether it's choosing a gift or wrapping the package.

"A lot of it is activism," she said, using the example of baking cookies for a shut-in neighbor or residents of a nursing home.

"As you're doing an activity that shows caring and sharing, talk about it. You could say that you want to make the cookies to give them to people who'd really love to have them, who might be feeling lonely that day.

"You chat about it in a spontaneous way. It's sharing a part of yourself, telling your life story. When children see you enjoying what you are doing, they learn a lot more than if you tell it like a list of things you should be doing."

There is one admonition, though.

"Don't do it in a preachy kind of way," she said. "The preaching stuff doesn't work as well as behavior."
-- Paula Voell

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