Encouraging Children to be Selfish – It’s Not What you Think

By Michele Weisman

Woke up thinking about all the words we use that have “self” in it –  myself – yourself – ourselves – but how we don’t really consider what “self” means. In the worlds of #selfdevelopment, #selfawareness, and #selfdiscovery, etc… yes – “self” is a well-known construct, but for so many of us busy being moms and dads, not so much.

In fact, growing up (both for me and my kids), being “selfish” was a strong negative.

“Don’t be selfish”. 

Even now it evokes feelings of shame and images of head-hanging and shoulder-slumping.

“Share your toys; don’t be selfish”.

“That’s not nice Rachel; give your sister the bigger piece”.

Then we grow up and find ourselves struggling with buried feelings and trapped emotions, and learn in coaching or therapy that focusing on “the self” is valuable, even necessary.

You know – “…happiness is an inside job” and all the other inspirational quotes and book titles.

Well, which is it?

Don’t be selfish or Be Self-ish?

If Instagram is any indication, it’s the latter. I, and thousands (even millions!!), tag without hesitation – #selfcare, #selflove, #knowyourself, #trueself .

Having woken up immersed in #selftalk was no doubt related to my recent conversation with my older daughter Rachel, now 26. She was 2 years 7 months when her younger sister Alana was born, and she did not want to share me. I often retell the anecdote of how she clearly communicated this sentiment.

Home from the hospital just minutes before, I gently rocked Alana for the first time in the “baby’s room”. Rachel looked first at Alana, then at me, and then without a word, resolutely slapped me.

I laugh now, but I didn’t then. In fact, I’m sure I said something like, “that’s not nice Rachel” or “don’t hit Mommy”.

Or perhaps I somewhat appreciated her predicament and said something more empathetic like, “ Don’t worry Rachel; Mommy has enough love for both of her girls”. I wonder now if this was the first of the many times I denied her feelings to make my self more comfortable. I’m confident it was close to the first time I communicated to her that angry feelings directed towards her sister were bad.

How many times in the course of a childhood did I deny her feelings?

I have always been a fairly conscientious mother, sensitive to both of my daughters’ emotional needs, but I know I yelled “Rachel don’t be selfish” and “Rachel don’t be mean” each time she acted out her deep desire not to share me with her little sister.

Over the last few weeks, Rachel and I have been talking about the feelings of sadness with which she struggles. Always the mommy, I try to comfort her and help her to figure it out.

“Do you feel depressed?” “Do you think it could be PMS?”

But her words, “I’m sorry I’m not fun to be around” – “I’m stupid” – revealed to me a young child, hurt and disappointed in herself.

As an experienced mother and a transformation coach, I encouraged her to connect to the parts of herself she likes the most. As her tears streamed down her face, she grunted a “but I don’t want to” grunt.

I was doing it again.

I was denying her the time she needed to feel her disappointment. To be self-ish.

My instinct to try and make her feel better gets in the way of what she really needs; to feel her feelings without judgment from me or anyone else. 

Being connected to your feelings is everything. If your children are young, help them connect with their feelings by acknowledging and noticing it for them – “Rachel, I see you have big feelings towards Alana”. 

The key is to refrain from judgment in both your tone and your choice of words.

Then encourage them to choose the words that best describe how they feel (i.e. don’t say “I see you’re very angry”). Most importantly, let them know it’s so good for them to feel their feelings; that this is called “knowing their SELF”, and it’s so healthy. Suggest an activity such has drawing or dancing to allow the feelings to be expressed so that they can be set free afterwards.

If your children aren’t young, say they’re 26, it’s still not too late to encourage them to feel their feelings. Chances are it will take some time, because by then, they’ve learned to bury those feelings their well-intentioned mothers talked them out of.

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