Gosh, our kids are selfish!

What can we do?

Good Morning Rabbi and Susan Lapin!

I’ve been a long-time listener to your podcast ever since a special segment you did on the Glenn Beck program some time ago. My family and I have benefited tremendously from your teachings, and I’m a proud owner of just about every audio and written item in your store. I recently purchased Soul Construction, and am only a chapter into it, so please forgive me if this question is answered in that book!

I’d like to preface my question with kudos to your teachings on gratitude and its effect on joyfulness. That was an eye-opening lesson that I took a while back and it is one of the most powerful ones yet. While I’m by no means good at it yet, it does provide a tool in my arsenal whenever I feel very down, or one of our four kids gets into a pity-party cycle. I will sit them down and make them come up with at least 10 things they are thankful for, and say them out loud. They will cry and moan and complain at the order at first, but usually by number 5 they are smiling and their attitude is much improved! It’s amazing, but it shouldn’t be, that the Good Lord’s rules really do work, and they work fast sometimes!

Which brings me to my question. I’ve noticed that, especially in my older kids, there seems to be a real spirit of selfishness that I can’t even comprehend. My 11-year-old boy will push or hit his little sisters without even a shred of compassion over something like them touching his book or creation. My kids will fight and bite and shove for whatever they perceive as “theirs” with no regard for their siblings. In their minds, its always, “Me first, and anybody else a very far distant second.”

I’m really at a loss here, because I have never acted like this that I know of and my wife and I just can’t comprehend the total lack of caring about others that they display. I’d absolutely love another “Magic Pill” like the gratitude one that would reverse selfishness and create selflessness in them, but I have a sinking suspicion that this one may be a bit tougher.
Please help!

Best Regards,
Mark C.

Dear Mark,

We appreciate your kind words and are delighted that you are reading Ruchi Koval’s book (that we edited and published) Soul Construction: Shape Your Character Using 8 Steps from the Timeless Jewish Practice of Mussar. While Ruchi’s book focuses on adults improving their own behavior, as a mom of seven children, she has a great deal of experience in that area as well. We asked her to reflect on your important question and now pass on her words to you. We add some additional ideas too.

Here is what Ruchi wrote:

I totally understand your worries. We want to build good character in our kids, and try to model that good character (which is what my book Soul Construction is all about). Then we see our kids acting in ways that are totally counter to what we’ve taught them! It’s infuriating — and we worry for their future.

Here are a few pieces of good news to reassure you. One, there’s an expression in Vegas, “The house always wins.” Not that we’ll learn values from Vegas, but this happens to be true. The values and lessons that you consistently and continually teach and role model to your kids in the home, will stick. There will be some normal ups and downs and fluctuations, but those lessons will typically come home to roost.

Two, normal siblings fight. Often, when kids feel loved and safe, they use their family members, who are their safest targets, to work out their age-appropriate feelings of competition and aggression. Why? Because in an emotionally healthy environment, they know they will still be loved. This is a good sign that we are creating a safe, growth-oriented, loving environment in our homes. Traumatized kids often act excessively “good” — they know acting out is too risky.

Finally, you should know that the way children treat their brothers and sisters is definitely not an indication of how they treat others, particularly once they grow a little older and more mature. So, if they’re acting rude and unkind to their siblings, definitely establish that that is not okay in your home and take whatever measures to communicate that, but don’t be concerned that their character is fatally flawed now and forever. If they’re doing it to others across the board, that’s a different story and you’d have to examine that more closely.

I just want to point something out: I have always noticed that parenting is an almost perfect metaphor for understanding, to some degree, how God must “feel” when we, His children, don’t treat each other with respect. So when we as parents feel distress, because our greatest joy is to see our children loving one another and being kind to each other, let’s remember to also give God that joy, and treat our fellow humans, who are all His children, created in His image, with respect as well.

Good luck!

Back to us! We agree with Ruchi’s points and especially appreciate her warning that we parents can work ourselves up into terror that our children’s shortcoming reveal irreparable, bad character traits. We do need to keep the long view in mind.

We don’t have a ‘magic bullet’, but we do have two suggestions for you. Books are a wonderful way to present character modeling without preaching. We recommend finding books that you read aloud at the supper table or around the fireplace which present responsible and loving sibling relationships. The nice thing about a read-aloud is that the material can be appropriate for a wider range of ages than if a child is reading to himself. It also provides a group activity that bonds participants to each other. You might want to look at my (Susan’s) Practical Parenting book recommendations and columns on the topic. (Here’s one)

Our second suggestion is to exaggerate, but not to the point of parody, your courteous treatment of your spouse (and vice-versa) and your treatment of your children. Model respect for their possessions and feelings even in areas where you might have simply acted without articulating what you were doing. For example, make sure your children hear you saying to your wife, “I’m going to make myself a cup of tea. Can I get one for you as well?” or, “I put your book on the shelf because I didn’t want anything to spill on it.” Do you open the car door for your wife every time you go out together? Does she make a point of serving you with the cup you especially like? You can tell your son, “I put your towel in the drier so it would be warm when you came out of the shower.” Pay attention to maximizing your own behavior in this area and, eventually, it will sink in with your kids.

One technique we found useful as parents was to put a “revisit the issue” tickler on our calendar when an issue with our children was bothering us. One or two months later, the issue that was driving us crazy was often gone or mitigated. When something persisted or worsened, we knew we needed more action.

We think it will be helpful for you, Mark, to remember that God created us with certain innate negative tendencies that He wants us to overcome. For instance, we all tend toward laziness and, yes, selfishness. Your children may still be a bit young to delight in the challenge of trying to defeat those tendencies. One more negative tendency is that we all incline towards treating strangers with more courtesy, politeness and consideration than we extend to those closest and dearest to us. That is why one of the Ten Commandments (#5) directs us to honor parents. You might have thought that we’d automatically revere those who gave us life and paid for our orthodontics. But no, particularly when young, we tend to view other people’s parents as far more worthy of respect and admiration than our own. Perhaps gently help your children understand that you note them behaving more considerately towards friends than siblings and open a family discussion on the topic.

Above all, regardless of whatever child-raising challenges you’re currently engaged in, try always, every minute of every day, to view your family with affection and gratitude. Repairing something you love is far more effective than trying to fix something towards which you are coldly disdainful. Eventually some of the music stops and from older children you’ll no longer hear “Daddy, come here, I need you!” And you’ll mightily miss hearing those words. Enjoy your family,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

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