Hey Mommy, Watch This!
Recently I had the opportunity to visit a preschool to offer some training for the teachers. After the presentation, a smaller group of us moved to the playground where we continued a more informal discussion. At the time, the playground was full of youngsters for the afternoon break. All of the sudden a young boy yelled from a few yards away, "Hey, watch this!" He was jumping off the monkey bars and pretending he could fly through the air. He was obviously quite pleased with himself, and wanted to make sure we agreed with his assessment. A moment later, a little girl who was watching the boy waved her arms at us and said "Watch, I can do a somersault," which she proceeded to do. In no time at all, a number of children could be heard saying "Watch this" or "Look at me" or "I can do that!"
As I had already surmised, we were sitting among a group of four-year-olds. What tipped me off about the age was the particular activity we were witnessing. These children were engaged in "showing off", partly to get our attention and partly to gain our approval and confirmation of their rather exaggerated views of themselves. It's as though they were saying "I'm here, I'm great, and look what I can do!"
Four-year-olds necessarily engage in a lot of showing off or what might clinically be termed "exhibitionism." They run fast, kick the ball hard, pretend to leap off tall buildings, and dance like angels. As if these weren't enough, they expand and exaggerate their capabilities by pretending to be superheroes that can overcome any obstacle using their special magical powers. What is going on here is that these youngsters are making a grand entrance into the world. Having successfully navigated the tasks of the first three years and emerged as walking, talking, feeling, and thinking little individuals, these youngsters are now ready to take the next step, which is to join the wider world of social connections and social roles. To make the transition, however, they need to be armed with a positive self-image and a lot of self esteem that can withstand the ups and downs of engaging with peers and dealing with adults other than their parents. They need some padding and protection as they take on more complicated relationships and try and live up to greater expectations.
The padding comes in the shape of a rather inflated and exaggerated sense of themselves, which they develop in two ways. The first is through the consistent observation and affirmation of themselves by their parents. Stated another way, the young child formulates who he is through the admiring eyes of mommy and daddy. It would be sort of like looking into a mirror that could talk back to you and affirm for you what you see, like the wicked queen in Snow White who says, "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the fairest of them all." The answer she's looking for is that she is the fairest of them all. The four-year-old is looking for that same answer, and it needs to come from mommy and daddy in the form of admiration, attention, and love.
The second method is through fantasy play, especially play where the youngster takes on the role of a superhero or character with superhuman powers. For example, Joey is a four-year-old boy who loves to play Superman. He has a full-sized Superman cape which he wears over his Superman pajamas (that look like the Superman suit), and red boots that he constructs by pulling red knee socks up over his cowboy boots. To complete the outfit he has an old suit jacket and horn-rimmed glasses (without the glass) that he wears over the Superman outfit when he's Clark Kent. A typical fantasy is to have his mother pretend that some bad guys are chasing her and scream for help. "Clark" swirls around while removing his clothes and emerges as Superman. With his cape flowing, he flies through air, rushes to his mother's side, and single handedly throws the bad guys into outer space. She makes many exclamations about how strong he is and how grateful she is that he saved her. He tips his head, says "thanks mamn," and flies off.
In the fantasy, Joey steps into the world as a contributing participant, but he does so by becoming someone who is very powerful and admired - a superhero. His mother's participation in the fantasy assists him in validating this puffed up self-image, and even after the fantasy is over, these feelings stay with Joey for some time.
What this story exemplifies is the fact that young children need to experience themselves this way initially as they begin to make their entrance into the social world. Moreover, the experience needs to be a repetitive one until the child's oversized self-image becomes steady. As the child gets older and begins to interact more in social settings such as school, this inflated self-image will gradually be transformed into a cooperative and contributing self that participates in the general activities of society. The little superhero will become the school student, baseball player, doll collector, ballet dancer, etc. But for now, take pleasure in your little exhibitionist and join in his quest for conquering the world through play and admiration. You'll be providing a psychological bridge to the future.