It can be challenging to raise selfless children in a world full of self-centeredness. Here are nine ways parents can encourage kids to think of others before themselves.
“He has more cereal than me!” my daughter wailed from her favorite seat at the kitchen counter.
“No! She has more than me!” my son quickly pointed out from the seat next to her.
Gripping my coffee mug a bit tighter, I stood at the counter opposite them and took a deep breath. My instinct was to lose it. After all, this bickering over who was getting better treatment from me had been going on all morning.
First, it was who got the better seat at the kitchen counter (is there really a better seat?) Then, it was who got their drink first. Now, it was the cereal.
Are you kidding me?! I was tempted to yell. You’re really upset over a few extra Cheerios?!
But as much as I wanted to scream at my children, I didn’t. As much as I wanted to point out their selfishness in frustrated shouts and hysterics, I held it together. Not because I’m the paradigm of calm mothering (I’m trying), but because, just as I felt the urge to flip out over my children’s obsession with what was in each of their bowls, a quote came to my mind that I’d recently heard:
“The only time you should worry about what’s in your neighbor’s bowl,” I asserted, “is if you’re checking to make sure they have enough.”
My kids just stared at me.
My oldest looked thoughtful, at least, seemingly mulling over this strange concept to decide whether it was one he wanted to accept.
My four-year-old, however, looked blankly at me, obviously clueless as to the meaning of the words I’d just shared.
“What I mean,” I clarified for her, “is that I want you to be kind to your brother. And that means being happy for him when he gets good things. Not upset with him.”
The message seemed to sink in. At least a little. My daughter got quiet and went back to eating her food. Which, for her, is akin to acceptance.
This struggle to raise selfless kids in a world that pushes self-centeredness is a battle I’m constantly fighting.
We live in a selfie culture. Our kids can hardly escape it. They’re bombarded with announcements of how many likes friends receive on social media, and even their clothing encourages them to, “Love your selfie!”
What’s a concerned parent to do?
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Nothing allows me to see my husband and myself as we truly are like seeing ourselves reflected in our children. Whether they’ve adopted my penchant for leaving behind a trail of half-finished tasks or they’ve mastered their dad’s sarcastic sense of humor, they’re doing a fabulous job learning a lot from their parents.
We all know kids are sponges. They absorb that which they see their parents doing. As such, they’ll have a harder time learning to be service-minded if they don’t regularly see it in action at home.
We can’t expect our children to be models of selflessness if we, their parents, are more concerned with what we get rather than what we give. And, so, if we want considerate children, we must be considerate ourselves.
Sure, kids seemingly absorb some traits through osmosis. Other traits, however, benefit from some direct instruction.
On more than one occasion, I’ve asked my kids to imagine how it feels to walk in someone else’s shoes. And then I make them answer me. It’s important that they verbally acknowledge another person’s feelings.
Reading (and discussing) books with our children is a great way to do this. It’s an opportunity to analyze the characters’ motivations and emotions, and to imagine oneself in their situations.
One of my high school English teachers maintained that the most important reason for reading books and studying literature is to learn empathy. Now that I’m a parent, I can see how right she is.
Start teaching selflessness early.
Too often today, we believe that children can’t master such skills like sharing or feelings such as empathy until they’re much older.
But, studies and experts agree on the importance of teaching children empathy from their youngest days.
Indeed, I’ve seen firsthand that skills and concepts taught from infancy are the ones that become second-nature. They’re the ones you don’t have to teach later.
After my husband and I had our first child, I’d sit at playdates, watching two-year-olds swipe toys away from one-year-olds as toddlers typically do. What surprised me, though, was watching some of the moms do nothing about the stealing and hoarding of toys.
“I don’t like to use the word no,” one mom explained.
“They can’t understand the idea of sharing until at least age 3,” said another.
I was confused. I’d been talking to my son about sharing his toys ever since the first time his little fingers clung to a truck he wanted to neither play with nor let go of.
Because we talked about the importance of sharing with my son at an early age, he was doing so easily by the time he turned two.
And in the seven years since then, he’s rarely had difficulty letting go of material items. He understands that our goodness to others, rather than tangible items, is what matters most in life.
Make charity a family activity
If we want to raise children who are naturally selfless, then they should be raised in a home where charity is the norm, not the exception.
While finding volunteer opportunities to do with little ones may be daunting, it’s not impossible. With our kids, aged one to nine, my husband and I have harvested peaches and green beans for food pantries, packed meals and decorated lunch bags for area soup kitchens, and created shoebox care packages for needy children.
Through such experiences, our children learn that charity is just something we do, that it’s a natural part of life to care for others. That from the little or plenty we have, we can still always give something, even if it’s just our time.
Many opportunities to volunteer from home exist. You can find some great ideas here: No Time to Volunteer? 7 Kid Activities You Can Do at Home
Make sure your children know you care more about their character than their accomplishments
Our world is big on accolades. It’s a comparison obsessed world, and kids themselves often become their parents’ trophies.
In a study conducted by the Making Caring Common Project at Harvard University, 80% of surveyed youth said their parents are more concerned about their achievement or happiness than caring for others.
It’s not surprising. We are surrounded by bumper stickers celebrating honor students, and social media posts announcing a child’s success at a big game. While it’s not wrong to be proud of our children’s accomplishments, it can become problematic if all children hear is that their parents are proud of what they do rather than who they are.
When my son was in first grade, he put pressure on himself to get 100% on every spelling quiz, to the point where he’d be upset if he earned anything less. I was glad he was motivated to do well academically, but I also saw that I had to help him alter his perspective a bit.
“You don’t have to be the best in your class,” I told him, “but I hope you’re the kindest.”
Admittedly, after saying this, I had nervous visions of his grades plummeting (“Hey, Mom said I don’t need to be smart!”), so I reinforced that I still expect him to study and try his best.
But, the most important point my husband and I have maintained is that while we’re proud of his accomplishments, we’re more proud of him for simply being a person of noble character.
Remind your children often of their responsibility to care for others
In our entitled world, children often grow up believing the world is here to please them. It is our job as parents to teach them otherwise.
Recently, my son came home from school and immediately began kicking his soccer ball around the yard. At the same time, my four-year-old daughter ran in the house to get a football her brother usually loves to play with.
Now, my daughter doesn’t love football (she would much rather play dolls), but she does love her big brother. So, I watched as she ran to him with his football, shouting, “Do you want to play?”
My son barely acknowledged her, mumbling a curt, “No,” as he kicked the ball at the side of the garage.
My daughter was crestfallen. The football fell to the ground, and her face fell with it.
Matters got worse when my son grabbed the fallen football and ran inside to hide it.
“Umm, really?” I asked him.
“I don’t want to play with it, but I don’t want her to, either. She might ruin it.”
“Ruin a football?” I repeated, incredulous.
And then I reminded him of something I often repeat to my kids. “Honey, the world is not here to serve you – or any of us. We are here to serve each other. You need to rethink your choices.”
He changed his attitude and got the football, so they could play. My daughter responded, “We can play soccer instead since you want to play that more.” And, they did.
Our kids aren’t perfect. Often, it seems they’re still at the starting line on this road to selflessness.
And, so, we remind them. We remind them to put others first. We remind them to be kind. And we do this constantly in the hopes that one day our reminders will be able to be a little (okay, a lot) less constant.
Beware of the message you send
Sometimes what we don’t do matters more than what we do.
It seems a small thing, but I cringe when I see kids wearing shirts that proclaim their self-centeredness or thoughtlessness as if it’s something to be proud of. A boy in my son’s class recently came to school wearing a shirt that announced, “I see your lips moving, but I’m not listening.”
Such clothing sends the wrong message to our children. It’s confusing and contradictory to teach them kindness, but then, for the sake of “humor,” ignore the lesson altogether in what we buy for them to wear.
Recognize sacrifice and foster gratitude
It’s often easier to focus on the negative than on the positive. We live in a society that more readily finds fault than merit.
But, challenge yourself to look for others’ thoughtful actions. Pay attention to others’ sacrifices and point them out to your children.
After my daughter offered to play soccer, rather than football, with her big brother, I noted it aloud to them both.
“That was kind of you to offer to play what your brother wanted, even though I was prodding him to do what you wanted,” I acknowledged to my daughter in front of my son.
And of my son, I encouraged gratitude for his sister’s sacrifice.
Keep up the good work through repetition
The art of raising selfless kids, unfortunately, doesn’t take place in a single moment. It is, rather, a lifetime of continued practice and reinforcement, both on our part and the part of our children.
My kids’ fight over their cereal was surely not their last bout of selfishness, but I hope, with consistency in holding them to a higher standard of behavior, their battles with the “me first” mentality will be fewer and farther between.
After nearly a decade as a high school English teacher, Michaelyn Hein left the classroom to become a stay-at-home mom, writing tutor, and freelance writer and editor. She holds a B.A. in English and M.A.T. in English and Secondary Education. Michaelyn has been a regular contributor to Tender Tidings, and its parent website, Catholic Attachment Parenting Corner. Her work will also soon appear on A Fine Parent. Michaelyn resides in New Jersey with her husband and their three children.
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