"Wow, that was a great shot!" my son's 4-year-old friend Sean shouted as he scored a basket in my driveway. "I'm doing really good," he told me. "I sure know how to play!"
His pleasure in himself was so blatant that it almost made me wince. However, I seem to encounter this "I'm the king of the world" attitude all the time with both preschool boys and girls. "I have two Mickey Mouse books, and I have Donald Duck and Beauty and the Beast," Michelle declared proudly when I was carpooling a group of kids to music class. "That means I have so many Disney books!"
My son, David, certainly does his share of gloating. "I'm bigger than you," he told his friend Jake. "I'm in the 4's class, and you're only in the 3's."
I realize that sensitivity and tact are not a 4-year-old's strong suits. But I also know that parents spend an awful lot of time telling their kids how great they are. As we take every opportunity to nurture our children's self-esteem, I can't help but wonder whether we're raising a generation of kids whose delight in themselves will make them indifferent to others. Should parents be trying to teach their preschoolers to have a sense of humility?
Boasting is not only normal, it's healthy at this age, according to Marvin Berkowitz, Ph.D., a professor of character education at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. "One of the most important tasks for a child is to develop a sense of herself as a causal agent -- that she is successful and can make things happen," says Dr. Berkowitz.
Kids who are raised in a loving, secure environment will continue to have positive opinions of themselves throughout their preschool years. When a 3- or 4-year-old calls attention to her accomplishments -- whether she's scoring a goal, displaying a drawing, or leading her class to the playground -- it's her way of expressing feelings of satisfaction, such as "I'm happy," "This is really fun," or "These people like me."
Furthermore, a preschooler's high self-regard tends to be absolute. "A child doesn't think, 'I'm good at this but not so good at that,'" says Dr. Berkowitz. "He just thinks, 'I'm good.' It's not until elementary school that kids begin to have a more realistic view of their strengths and weaknesses."
Because preschoolers are spending time in a group setting where they can compare themselves with classmates, it's natural for them to express their confidence with claims of superiority ("I'm faster than you!"). Children generally don't intend to hurt their friends' feelings; they simply don't realize that celebrating their successes can make someone else feel bad, notes Peter Gorski, M.D., an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. "Three and 4-year-olds have trouble understanding that people can feel differently about the same event."
When a child tends to boast much more than her peers, though, it's often because she doesn't get enough approval from her parents -- and she brags as a way of finding out whether she is valued, says Ervin Staub, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Sometimes it's the result of receiving too much praise -- giving the child the message that constant self-promotion is perfectly fine.
A child who suddenly starts boasting excessively may also be responding to new peer pressures. "You have to wonder what's going on in the child's environment," says Dr. Gorski. "Is he imitating another child? Is he being teased? Is he spending a lot of time in a setting where winning is all that matters, such as a sports program? It's best to discuss the situation with your child's preschool teacher or caregiver."
However, if your child simply expresses delight in his own accomplishments, experts say it's fine to reinforce these normal feelings. On the other hand, if your child seems to derive pleasure primarily from doing something better than someone else, your response can help provide valuable lessons in sensitivity to others' feelings.