How Do I Teach My Child Not to Be Selfish?

When her child grabs a toy away from a playmate or yells “mine” as she grabs the last chocolate chip cookie from the plate, a mother may despair that her child is selfish. Actually, with a little maturity on the child’s part and some understanding and input on the part of the parents, most children can learn to develop unselfish behavior.


Zen Habits points out that it is by example that children learn compassion as they see us acting compassionately toward every member of the family. Without understanding compassion, kids are at a loss to see why they shouldn’t be selfish.

Because children are great imitators, they learn to replicate examples they see in their own homes. A parent who leaves a favorite TV show to help a frustrated child rebuild a toppled tower is demonstrating unselfish behavior. So do parents who explain to kids that guests for dinner will sit in the comfy dining room chairs or who give up bowling night to visiting a sick friend.

Pointing Out Examples

Parents can watch for examples of unselfish behavior in daily life to point out to their children. For example, a ball rolls in the street and a driver stops to pick it up and throws it back onto the playground; a parent might say, “That was great; he was probably on his way to work, but he took time to help out those kids.” Or after a play date a parent might point out that the child whose house they visited was very generous about sharing her toys. Perhaps the most effective examples a parent can use, according to Kids Health, is “catching” your kids demonstrating unselfish behavior and later quietly pointing it out to them: “I saw how you let Tim take the last piece of pizza.”

Using Books

Sometimes an effective way to open a discussion on selfishness is to read fictionalized accounts and talk about what you read. Some popular books for little ones include “It’s Mine!” by Leo Lionni, “A Children’s Book About Being Selfish” by Joy Wilt Berry and “The Berenstain Bears Get the Gimmes” by Stan and Jan Berenstain. Young readers may enjoy “Chestnut Cove” by Tim Egan, “Brenda’s Private Swing” by Bernice Chardiet and “Selfish Sophie” by Damian Kelleher.

Developmental Concerns

Learning to move away from having everything revolve around your needs and wants is a slow learning process for babies. Learning not to be selfish means learning that other people have needs and wants too. According to Toddlers Today, punishing a little one who won’t share is counterproductive because the child simply hasn’t gotten the idea yet. As children mature, they need to make some of their own decisions about how they will exhibit unselfish behavior; for example, a parent might say, “Jenny is coming over today. What toys will you give her to play with?”


Family Education suggests parents use the five W’s to root out reasons for a child’s selfishness before responding to the behavior. For example, you might ask why kids are acting in selfish ways; do they feel they are being neglected or overly criticized? What are the specific things and who are the specific individuals that seem to spark selfish behavior? When and where does this selfish behavior seem to manifest itself most often? Answering these questions can give parents clues into what’s going on in a child’s head that results in selfishness behaviors.



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