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Selfish Behavior in Children

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

This is our second post in a series on the types of misbehaviors demonstrated by children.  Previously we addressed ignorant misbehaviors – those “innocent” behaviors that children engage in due to a lack of information or know-how.  Today we are going to discuss the next level of misbehavior, selfish behaviors, what they reveal about the heart of the child and what you, as a Christian parent, can do about them.

What are Selfish Behaviors?

Children (along with the rest of us) generally think they are the center of the universe.  Unchecked, this mindset can spill over into their interactions with others.  These selfish behaviors might appear impulsive or mindless on the outside, but they are always a result of a self-focused heart. Like ignorant behaviors, they are also done without malicious intent.  The key element of this type of misbehavior is that the child was simply not thinking. Check that.  He was thinking, but mostly about himself. Here are some examples:

  • Child walks across the kitchen floor with muddy feet.
  • Child is swinging his coat over his head and hurts a sibling.
  • Child is being the “class clown” at the dinner table.
  • Child bothers Mom while on the telephone.
  • Child interrupts an adult conversation.

What Selfish Behaviors Say about the Heart

“Kids will be kids” is often used to explain away this category of misbehavior. If we choose to view it in this light, however, we will miss an opportunity for training and biblical instruction.  At the heart of this type of behavior is a focus on self.  The Bible is full of passages that illuminate the fact that this is the exact opposite of God’s standard.  Here are a few examples:

  • Philippians 2:3-4: Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
  • Matthew 5:16: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
  • 1 Corinthians 13:5:[Love] does not insist on its own way. . .”

How to Address Selfish Behaviors

Giving our children opportunities to think about and then serve others will help to over-write the pre-programmed selfish nature that is in all of us due to original sin.  Here are a few ways that you can instill an “other-focus” in your children:

  • Do a Googly Eye family activity
  • Create a list of all the ways people can put others first
  • Use your list to create a daily service jar (one “assignment” per person per day)
  • Serve others together
  • Teach the meaning of empathy; point it out when you see it in action

These types of training activities are very beneficial for the underlying heart condition.  But the effects of selfish misbehaviors should not be ignored.  Once the heart is addressed, natural and logical consequences can follow.  Examples are: mopping the muddy floor, making amends to the hurt sibling or sitting quietly in a chair the next time Mom is on the phone.  Role play is another excellent way to help retrain a self-centered mindset.

Addressing the child’s selfish heart without having him make restitution to the one who was hurt will only perpetuate a self-centered attitude – the very thing you are trying to eliminate.

A Note of Caution

Some children with impulse control issues (such as ADD or ADHD) can demonstrate these types of “selfish” misbehaviors.  “Leaping before you look” is a common characteristic of children with impulse control problems.  While the underlying heart condition may not be present in these children, the remedy is the same: create an other-focus.  It is particularly important when dealing with kids with attention deficit symptoms to focus on times when you see an other-orientation in action.  Focusing on the positive can help break the cycle of negative responses to negative behaviors.

Furthermore, be on the look-out for selfish behaviors turning into intentional misbehaviors.  If the child’s selfish behaviors are un-responsive to verbal redirection or if the behavior becomes regularly repeated, you will need to intervene differently (to be addressed in our next post).  Again, a close look at the child’s heart will help reveal the type of behavior being displayed.

Photo credit: phaewilk from morguefile.com

About the author

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Laura Kuehn, LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in children and families. CfP is the place she combines some of her very favorite things: writing, parenting and God's word. She loves encouraging parents to build their families upon Jesus, the one true Cornerstone. She is happily married to a wonderfully supportive husband and is the mother of two delightfully inspiring children.

2 Comments

  • Thank you for this particular blog. I just had a situation with my 4-year old in which I asked him to take the silverware out of the dishwasher while I took the other dishes out. He shook his head no and I said that I would really appreciate some help. Then he said it was too much. After putting up the dishes and taking down his responsibility reward chart I decided to take it to God in my closet. After the release of lots of tears and anger, I was able to focus my mind to look up verses for selfishness. I ran across a couple of helpful sites; one for me (my son was mirroring my selfishness–very tough to take in but true) and one for my son (yours). I’m calm now and want to discuss selfishness with my son but am curious of how I would turn the dishwasher incident into an others-focused learning activity. I am aware that he’s young and teaching him to become generous will take time. I would just like some additional advice, if you have any, on how to reach his heart when he sees two different examples through his dad and me. He sees me doing all the housework while seeing dad watch tv and study his phone. He sees me taking care of his bath and getting him ready for school and bed, etc. I feel as though I’m losing the battle. I know I’m not, but just don’t feel victorious. Not to mention it breaks my heart to think how confused he must be with what I’m trying to teach him biblically through words and actions but he hears and sees something different from dad–no mention of God.

    • Hi Sherry,

      Thank you for reaching out. I am so glad to hear that you are trying to address the heart of the matter with your son. It is so important that we address this issues at the root where they start. In the future if you are faced with a similar dishwasher incident, I think it would be helpful to bring the issue to a level he can understand. Find something that he likes to do and use it as an example. Let’s say he likes Legos. Ask him what would happen if a part of his creation (say a wheel on a car) decided it was “too much” and didn’t want to turn. What would happen to the car? Would it work well? In a family everyone needs to do their work too, just like in a car, or it won’t work right. You can find some verses in the Bible to share with him about how God feels about hard work and idleness. Use a very simple translation so he can understand. He may say, “What about Daddy? He doesn’t help.” If this comes up you can say, “Daddy is a grown up. That is between him and God. We need to do our part.” Every time you see him helping out in any little way, be sure to encourage it with lots of attention.

      I hope that helps. May God bless you in your efforts to train and guide you son with a heart for others.

      Laura

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