Curbing Selfish Behavior

Parents magazine advisory board member, Michele Borba, EdD, recently took time out of her busy schedule to answer parents' questions on our Community Boards. The following is her advice to help your child stop being selfish, disrespectful, and materialistic.

The first step to stopping those behaviors is recognizing that it's a problem in your child. Next is deciding to stop it. Remember, those types of behavior rob your child's character. So I'm including a few steps for you to consider from my book, Don't Give Me That Attitude!

Step 1. Go Beneath the Surface

Here are some common and less apparent reasons, which may be contributing to your child's selfish attitude. Check off the ones that apply to you.

  • You're spoiling the kid for bad reasons of your own (i.e., guilt, compensation, avoidance, "love").
  • You don't treat discipline and setting limits as a high priority in your parenting.
  • You or another adult member of your family is modeling selfishness.
  • Your kid is feeling neglected.
  • Your kid is jealous of a partner or sibling.
  • Your kid resents how much you indulge yourself with luxuries and privileges.
  • Your child has never been taught the value of selflessness.
  • Your child has poor emotional intelligence and has difficulties identifying or understanding other people's emotions.
  • Your child is angry, anxious, or depressed or having some other problem that makes it difficult for him to think of others.

Step 2. Censure Selfishness

A major step in squelching kids' selfish attitudes is simply not tolerating it. You're right: it won't be easy, especially, if your kid is used to having his every whim catered for a long time. But if you really are serious about changing this attitude, you must stand firm and be consistent. Start by clearly laying down your new attitude expectations: "In this house you are always to be considerate of others." Then loudly state your disapproval each and every time your child acts selfishly. Be sure to state why their behavior was wrong, and if the selfish attitude continues, consider applying consequences.

"That was selfish: I expect you to treat your friends the same way you'd want to be treated."

"I'm very concerned when I see you monopolizing all the video games and not sharing them with your friend. You may not treat people selfishly."

Step 3. Nurture Empathy to Decrease Selfishness

Kids who are empathic can understand where other people are coming from because they can put themselves in their shoes and feel how they feel. And because they can "feel with" someone else, they are more generous, unselfish, and caring. So nurture your child's empathy to help him see beyond himself and into the views of others.

Point out others' emotions. Point out the facial expressions, posture, and mannerisms of people in different emotional states as well as their predicaments helps kids tune into other people's feelings. As occasions arise, explain your concern and what clues helped you make your feeling assessment: "Did you notice Kelly's face when you were playing today? I was concerned because she seemed worried about something. Maybe you should talk to her to see if she's okay."

Imagine someone's feelings. Help your kid imagine how the other person feels about a special situation. "Imagine you're a new student and you're walking into a brand-new school and don't know anyone. How will you feel?" Look for daily situations that could nurture empathy. Asking "How would you feel?" and "How does the other person feel?" helps kids understand the feelings and needs of other people.

Parent: "Dad's had a long, hard day at the office. How do you think he feels?"
Child: "Kind of tired."

Parent: "So what could you do to make him feel better?"
Child: "I guess I could turn down my TV, so it's not so loud."

Parent: "That's a great idea! It would be a nice way to let Daddy know you're thinking about him."

Step 4. Set Limits

One reason kids become selfish is because they are used to getting their way. Set clear limits and then stick to them like glue. Don't give in to whining, pouting, tantrums, and guilt-laced admonishments of "You're the worst parent in the world!" This might be hard if you think your main role is to be your kid's best friend. Reset your thinking. See yourself as the adult, and recognize that hundreds of child development studies conclude that kids whose parents set clear behavior expectations turned out less-selfish kids. You may have to have a serious talk with other caregivers in your kids' life who are guilty of overindulging. Let such individuals know in no uncertain terms you are serious about curbing your kid's selfish attitude around and must have their cooperation to do so.

Step 5. Reinforce Selfless Acts

Parents who raise selfless, caring kids don't do so by accident. They intentionally make sure that their kids are aware of the rights, feelings, and needs of others. This means you need to fight the tendency of trying to make your child feel as though the world revolves around him. You'll be much more pleased with the outcome: a more considerate, caring kid.

Of course, one of the fastest ways to increase selflessness is by "catching" your kid doing considerate and unselfish acts. Always remember to describe the deed so she clearly understands the virtue and point out the impact it had on the recipient. Doing so will also help her be more likely to repeat the same generous deed another time.

"Did you see Kelly's smile when you shared your toys? You made her happy." "Thanks for taking time to ask me how my day went."

Noel Castellanos

Dr. Borba is the author of 20 books. Her latest is 12 Simple Secrets Real Moms Know: Getting Back to Basics and Raising Happy Kids (Jossey-Bass-Wiley 2006). She is a former classroom and college teacher and has had a wide range of teaching experience, including work in regular education as well as work with children with learning, physical, behavioral, and emotional disabilities. She and her husband were partners in a private practice for troubled youth.

Dr. Borba received a Doctorate in Educational Psychology and Counseling from the University of San Francisco, an MA in Learning Disabilities and a BA from the University of Santa Clara, and earned a Life Teaching Credential from San Jose State University. She lives in Palm Springs, California, with her husband, and had three sons.

Parents Magazine

1 Comment

  1. I read this hoping to find an answer to my very difficult child's behavior but I am already doing these things. I have been trying to get my son to be more empathetic since he was little but he is 11 now and he is still so selfish. I have shown him how it affects me, the family and his peers, I have tried talking calmly, being nonchalant, I have tried scolding, I have told him exactly how he should act down to the smallest detail but nothing is working. I am at my wit's end. Any tips for the extremely stubborn AND selfish child?


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