We come into this world hard-wired to look out for number one. If you don’t believe it, spend some time hanging out with a toddler. One of the first words they typically learn is “Mine!” which they use liberally to claim the toy, snack or person they desire. So how do we teach our kids to overcome what seems to be such a natural inclination and be unselfish by thinking of others first?
1. Start early. Because it’s such a natural impulse for children to think and act selfishly, correct these behaviors early and consistently. When your children are toddlers, simple explanations, such as “you have to share and be kind,” or “we don’t snatch a toy from our friend while he’s playing” will do. The reasons why will come later.
2. Connect selfishness/unselfishness to faith lessons. Some of the most beautiful examples of giving and thinking of others are found in scripture. When you share Bible stories with your child, don’t miss the opportunity to point out those examples, and how we should follow them.
3. Crush the entitlement monster. Our culture has done a masterful job instructing parents to protect our children’s self-esteem at all costs. One of the unintended consequences of this barrage of self-image building is that many of our children have developed a real sense of entitlement, to the right friends, the right schools, the right clothes, the right car, etc. Listen out for clues in your child’s speech and behavior that a sense of entitlement is taking hold, and remind them that much of what they have is a blessing, and that God intends them to share those blessings with others rather than constantly strive to acquire and consume more.
4. Build a culture of sharing in your home. Sharing is a habit just like a lot of other things. Share meals together. Share chores together. Share your time. A parent can lead by example and model selflessness in a way that makes practical, everyday sense to the kids. (Example: Dad usually takes out the trash, but he’s working late this week, so mom takes it out for him, without complaint. You can point back to this example when one child needs to help out another with chores because of external factors. The message: We’re a family. We’re in this together.
5. Set the stage properly. So much of how our children see the world is learned from how we present it. Rather than encouraging your child to go to medical school so she can “be a doctor and make lots of cash,” you can intentionally cast a different vision. Help her see how achieving that goal will empower her to help others, to give of her time and expertise to provide for those in need. Consistently present goals and ideas to your family with an others-focused twist.
6. Praise a generous heart. If you think character traits like generosity are just as important as academic achievement, act like it. When you observe one of your children modeling selfless behavior, make just as big a deal of it as you would an “A” on the big math test. The child who is praised will be encouraged to continue doing the right thing, and siblings will get the message as well.