Learning Perspective-Taking

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Once children experience the joy of friendships, they are motivated to work at keeping them. As stated previously, this gives a reason for trying to understand another child’s viewpoint in a conflict.

The ability to see things from another’s viewpoint, perspective-taking, is essential to social competence. Without this ability, youngsters remain self-centered and unable to relate to the interests, needs, and rights of others. Until children can take into consideration the viewpoint of another person, they cannot make progress in reasoning about fairness. When they can only see their own views, their idea of justice consists of that which they desire for themselves. Obviously, this perception will not endear them to playmates.

There is considerable difference of opinion about how early children are able to understand another person’s thoughts and feelings. Examples of empathy from toddlers are often used to dispute Piaget’s research findings that perspective taking does not emerge until around age 6 (e.g., Lillard & Curenton, 1999). Although frequently discussed together, empathy is not the same thing as perspective taking. We agree that certain forms of empathy appear early, such as sympathizing with another child who is sad. However, true perspective taking, the ability to take another person’s view into consideration even when it conflicts with your own, is another matter. A 3-year-old who gives a cookie to a hungry child when there are plenty of cookies is not likely to do so when there is only one cookie, especially if that 3-year-old wants the cookie for himself or herself. Though very young children have been observed sharing and helping others (Eisenberg, 1992), it is not clear that these are demonstrations of true perspective-taking. Positive social behaviors may be motivated from other sources.

Despite differences in the research literature, there is agreement that awareness develops gradually from an egocentric perspective to the ability to respond to and even predict how others will feel (Hyson, 2004). Anyone working with young children is aware of their egocentricity (Flicker & Hoffman, 2002). According to Selman (DeVries, Hildebrandt, & Zan, 2000; Selman, 1980), with experience and guidance, people move through five levels of perspective taking as follows: Level 0, not recognizing that others have feelings or ideas different from your own, is common during preschool. During the primary grades, most children operate at level 1. At this point, young children realize that others have their own feelings, but can’t consider someone else’s feelings while thinking about their own. Our observation shows that this is particularly true when their own feelings are in opposition to the other person’s. As they move into upper elementary school, level 2 thinking is more common. This brings the ability to consider another person’s views as well as their own. Levels 3 and 4 bring increasing decentering and the ability to coordinate mutual perspectives. However, these generally do not emerge until adolescence and adulthood. Theory of mind research points out the role of maturation as children develop understanding of their own and others’ thinking (Flavell & Hartman, 2004).

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