I Want My Children to Be Selfish

I believe in order for children to become truly unselfish and empathize with healthy boundaries, they have to do the work of tending to their own needs.

We give our children one chore on school nights – to wipe down the family dinner table. But they often (read: almost always) forget. So, really the chore is on us every night to yell past the noise in their earphones plugged into devices, “Come wipe down the table!” There’s always something else they prioritize before the chore – a friend’s text chat to respond to, the latest upload of a favorite Youtube star, or lounging on the couch.
Sometimes I mutter child-friendly expletives under my breath and roll my eyes at having to nag for them to clean the table, but I perform those actions because that’s the script of the frustrated mother exasperated with her children’s egotism. The honest truth is, I like that my children are selfish, and here’s why:
I believe in order for children to become truly unselfish and empathize with healthy boundaries, they have to do the work of tending to their own needs, for how can you know and care for others if you haven’t learned to do it for yourself?
Growing up I was often asked to be kind to others by cutting myself down. As a girl, the world required I smile sweetly even when I didn’t feel sweet. I had to diminish myself in order to make others comfortable. Sometimes my parents made family plans that were inconvenient to my own expectations and I would be told to sacrifice my desires for the good of the family. “Don’t be selfish,” the world does not revolve around you, they told me. Before I had learned to really know myself, learning to be in touch with my own intuition and to trust in it, I was rushed into caring for others.
I was rewarded for it as compliments flowed freely. “You’re so thoughtful and kind,” and yet I felt miserable inside. I bore other people’s emotions before I learned to regulate my own. By the time I entered adulthood, I was exhausted and overwhelmed.
I get that this cruel and busy world needs more selfless heart and service. We need to raise children who will stop and help strangers, stand in line to donate blood, and pick a flower for the elderly neighbor. But I think empathy is caught, not taught. What if we trusted that they are wired to be empathetic, that if given a loving, supportive environment, every person prefers to be kind to others? What if egotism in our children and adolescents isn’t a sign that they are broken, but that the world is?
Harvard University developed a project whose mission is to help us raise kind and caring children. Making Caring Common provides resources to cultivate empathy in children, and the number one advice on their list is this: empathize with your child.
“When we empathize with our children they develop trusting, secure attachments with us,” the website states. “Those attachments are key to their wanting to adopt our values and to model our behavior, and therefore to building their empathy for others.”
So yes, while we want to be intentional about creating opportunities for our children to care, our first priority needs to be caring for our children. To me, this means giving them space and time to learn and meet their own needs, to self-regulate their emotions, to have plenty of opportunities to lounge on the couch day-dreaming with their imagination.
We need more caring adults in the world, but we need caring adults who are also, to use popular author Brene Brown’s expression, wholehearted. I want teens and young adults in my life who are secure, confident, who know what they want and have the courage to pursue it because it inspires me to do the same.
My teenager’s favorite celebrity crush is the K-pop boy band, BTS, who has risen in popularity from the Korean music arena onto the international stage. BTS recently partnered with UNICEF in a campaign to end violence for children. The name of their campaign? LOVE MYSELF. The armies, what the BTS fans call themselves, press their thumb and index finger against each other forming the shape of a small heart as they chant the slogan. Love myself, love myself, love myself.
Like many other women, I struggle with my body image and struggle even more to transfer that baggage to my daughter. But when I slipped and bemoaned my body weight the other day, my daughter flipped her hair, gave me the finger heart symbol, and quipped, “Mom, love yourself.” This growing young woman who spends hours in her room engrossed in her own interests instead of wiping down the table, she’s going to be okay.
I mean, she still needs to wipe down the table. But after doing what she wants to do is fine with me.