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Combatting Selfishness in Kids

3 ways to make your kids more giving

By Peter C. Kleponis, Ph.D.

Peter Kleponis

Kids are naturally selfish, but parents can guide them toward generosity, says Dr. Peter Kleponis.

One trait that parents continuously need to temper in kids is selfishness.  Infants are born into the world that seems to revolve around them. This is needed for their survival. However, as kids grow older, we need to teach them to be generous and self-giving. They need to learn that true happiness comes from giving of themselves to others.

Yet in our culture of instant gratification, when media bombard us with feel-good consumer messages, combating selfishness is no easy task. How many times have we heard people say “I need ‘me’ time,” or “what about my needs”? The 1970s were popularly known as the “me generation,” and the 80s were characterized by the “yuppie generation.” What began as a movement for greater self-actualization turned into a campaign for narcissism that has been passed down to subsequent generations.

Many who grew up in the 1970s and 80s were raised to be more selfish. Couples were choosing to have only one or two children, and then placed their kids on pedestals. They over-indulged their kids. Schools continued this trend by abandoning character education and replacing it with self-esteem education. This led to several generations of kids with an over-inflated sense of self-worth. It was believed that higher self-esteem would raise academic performance and lower violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and teen pregnancies. It didn’t work. Instead we were left with several generations of selfish young adults with an incredible sense of entitlement. The fear of hurting children’s self-esteem can also be seen in sports leagues where every child gets a trophy. While this may seem kind and compassionate toward children, it doesn’t prepare them for the real world.

This selfishness in kids can have multiple harmful effects later in life. It can prevent them from having healthy relationships. They may enter into relationships only for what they can get out of them, not for what they can contribute. This can only result in a series of failed relationships. It can also hurt their careers. They may have a poor work ethic yet expect higher pay than others. This sense of entitlement will certainly not endear them to employers. 

So how does a parent combat selfishness in kids when society seems to be constantly promoting it? The answer is character education, or raising kids to be virtuous. We need to raise kids to be generous, humble, respectful, hard-working and self-giving. Here are three ways:

Provide opportunities for giving of themselves so they may experience the joy of giving. This education can begin even when children are toddlers. We can teach them to share toys and to see how happy this makes others. Older children can volunteer their time to serve others. Activities such as feeding the homeless or visiting a nursing home are helpful. This type of service can continue well into the teen years. The more opportunities we give kids to give of themselves to others, the more they will understand the value of self-giving. It will also teach them to appreciate all the blessings in their lives.

Parents must also model virtues, such as humility, generosity, temperance, charity and respect. Kids are great “sponges.” They learn much from simply observing their parents. Although kids may act as if they are not paying attention, believe me, they are! If we strive to live virtuous lives, our kids will follow suit. Leading by example is another way to combat selfishness.

Don’t be afraid to correct your kids if you notice them acting selfishly. Fathers play a big role in this. Psychologist David Popenoe once wrote, “It’s the women who set the moral standards in society, but it’s the men who enforce them.” As fathers, we need to enforce a standard of behavior in ourselves and our children that fights selfishness and promotes self-giving. By doing this, we will ensure that our kids will grow up to be healthy, virtuous adults.

Peter C. Kleponis, Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Therapist and Assistant Director of Comprehensive Counseling Services in West Conshohocken, Pa. His website is maritalhealing.com.