Many parents feel that their children are selfish. They will say:
“I just broke my foot and I couldn’t come on my daughter’s class trip with her. She came home from the trip and threw a tantrum that I was not there…”
“My 5-year son does not let his friends play with any of his toys…”
“I spent a lot of money buying my daughter a whole new wardrobe and now she tells me she has nothing to wear…”
It is true, kids seem selfish—but it is only because they have not yet learned to see the world through someone else’s eyes. They are egocentric. They have not yet developed the ability to put themselves in another person’s shoes. It is truly a developmental problem, not a behavioral one.
In that case I would hesitate to call their behavior selfish, instead I would look a bit deeper into the problem at hand. If we view our children’s actions negatively—“selfish” or “mean” or “ungrateful”—we usually get angry. That makes it more difficult to discipline and teach our child to act in more positive, less selfish ways.
The child who threw a tantrum after her mother could not come as expected on her class trip is probably a kid who has trouble with change. She might have been looking forward to the trip with her Mom and couldn’t handle the disappointment.
If your child has a hard time sharing with others, does it necessarily mean that he is selfish? Perhaps he has an active imagination and becomes very involved in play. It might be hard for him to stop what he is doing and give his toys to another child.
The child who has a hard time finding something to wear is probably not acting out of selfishness. Finding an outfit that works can be tough for kids. Maybe she is nervous that she won’t fit in with her friends?
Not only that, but do kids have a monopoly on selfish behavior? As adults we all know that we can act in somewhat selfish ways. We often show our disappointment when our spouse unexpectedly needs to change his plans and stay late at work. We get a new computer and we don’t want anyone else to touch it. How many times do we look into a closet full of clothes and shake our heads, wondering what we should wear.
Are we truly selfish or just human? Are our kids selfish or just being kids?
I think the answer is: We are just human and our kids are just being kids. However, we can teach our kids (and ourselves if need be) to react differently, to act in ways that are more grateful, compassionate and sensitive.
It all starts with empathy.
To the child who threw a tantrum after plans were changed: “You were disappointed that I could not come on your class trip. You were looking forward to having me there. You wish I would not have broken my leg!”
To the child who can’t share: “You are involved in your play and you are using your blocks right now and you don’t feel like you can share them.”
To the child who complains that she has nothing to wear: “You can’t seem to find anything that works for you right now. You are having a hard time choosing an outfit to wear.”
Empathy, diffuses conflict, teaches kids that you understand how you feel and keeps the communication flowing. You are actually role modeling how not to be selfish, how to take another person’s feelings into consideration.
You can then guide a child to behave better: “You seemed so sad about the trip. It is hard to have plans change just like that. Next time I know that you will try to say with words, ‘Mommy, I was so disappointed that you could not come. I hope you feel better soon so you can come next time.’”
“It is tough to share your toys. Eli was sad that he could not play with the blocks. Maybe next time before your friend comes over we can talk about the toys that you have that you can share. Let’s try to remember that next time.”
“It can be hard when you can’t find the right outfit to wear. It can be hard to remember and be grateful for all the new things we do have. I am sure you will remember that when you calm down.
As we can see “selfishness” is a complicated state of being. Pulling our kids out of that state takes time, empathy and a bit of constructive guidance.