I haven’t been blogging for very long time, in fact I’ve only pushed the ‘Publish’ button seventeen times including today! That been shared, the one thing that has stood out for me over the past few months is the absolute fascination parents have with searching up ‘selfish children’ on the internet. I haven’t arrived at this realization based on an official statistical survey but I have come to notice that when I wrote a previous post on the topic, it has by far had the most browser search hits!
It was a tongue-in-cheek post really, not much in it explaining what actually drives children to behave selfishly, since that wasn’t my intention back then. I’ve subsequently considered taking that post down because it isn’t really much help to anyone seeking insight, but then I came up with another idea…
Today I am going to throw out a few thoughts on what selfish behaviour is based on the developmental perspective.
All too often when parents ask about a selfish child they are referring to a child who cannot share, a child who wants what they have for themselves and a child who seems unwilling to consider the needs of others. This behaviour instantly pushes parents buttons because nobody likes a selfish child or adult.
We are all very concerned that unless we teach our children how to share when they are young, they will grow into adults who can’t share either. Now that is certainly a scary thought. It’s no wonder parents are trawling the internet for solutions! As with most growing up, there is no quick fix, no one size fits all technique. I really, really wish there was but unfortunately there isn’t.
So, onto the good news…
Learning to share and consider the needs of others is part of the human developmental process. Yes, children do appear to learn to do this by watching others show kindness and generosity but this is very superficial behaviour because they are imitating those to whom they are attached. You can teach a child to act considerately but you can’t make them feel it. That requires a developmental readiness that lies within, it cannot simply be learnt by modelling the actions of those we love.
Dr Gordon Neufeld, among others, explains that young children generally exhibit what we call selfish behaviour because they do not yet have the capacity for ‘mixed feelings’. What this means is that until we are able to hold two thoughts or feelings in the same place, at the same time, we aren’t capable of being truly considerate of others.
Sounds simple enough really, but now you are probably wondering what having mixed feelings looks like and how it relates to promoting considerate behaviour towards others?
Think about it like this. If you were eating a box of your favourite candy and someone you knew came over to talk to you, you would probably offer them a few candies…or would you?
There are a few reasons as to why you might decide to share. Before reading on, think about what your reasons would be.
The most common reasons people would give are:
(a) That it would be rude not to.
(b) That your Mom told you that you have to.
(c) That you would receive a consequence if you didn’t!
All pretty compelling reasons to share your candy!
Someone motivated to share, based on a mixed feeling, would have two thoughts running through their head at the same time when deciding whether or not to share their candy. The mixed feeling commentary for your decision may go something like this,
(a) “I really love this candy and don’t want to share it BUT I know that she would think me rude if I didn’t at least offer.” Outcome: You share.
(b)”I really love this candy and don’t want to share it BUT my Mom said that nice kids share, and I don’t want to get into trouble.” Outcome: You share.
(c) “I really love this candy and don’t want to share it BUT if I don’t my Mom will not buy me any again, or she’ll take it away, or she’ll call me selfish and I don’t like that!”
Outcome: You share!
No matter the motivation, the outcome is the same: You share and that is because you held two thoughts in the same place, at the same time. If you however, you do not have mixed feelings and you only have one predominant thought in your head it goes something like this, “I really love this candy and I don’t want to share.” You stop there! Outcome: You don’t share, you are considered selfish and you get what is coming to you!
So, that is what a mixed feeling does for you, it makes you think twice! It can help you act more considerately even when you don’t necessarily feel like being considerate! Magic stuff, if only it could be bottled and sold as a tonic labelled “Socially Appropriate Behaviour. Administer with meals, three times a day.”
The really amazing thing about mixed feeling is that just because we are older doesn’t mean we have them all of the time! You will definitely know many adults who just can’t seem to share or be considerate of others. It has very little to do with chronological age and everything to do with maturity!
When we are under the age of five, we pretty much lack mixed feelings most of the time. It’s not on purpose, it’s just the way our brains are wired up at that age. (For more specifics on that you can find out more about ‘Integrative Functioning’ by looking into courses offered here.) When we are older and more mature, we develop our ‘mixed feelings’ but there are still times when they go missing. Ask any tired, hungry or stressed parent and they’ll tell you what I am talking about. We all sometimes snap at our children, even though we really love them, we all eat that piece of chocolate cake, even though we know we are on diet, we all say things to our partner that we really should have kept to ourselves (please tell me I am not alone on this one!). We’re not bad, mean people, we’ve just “lost our mix!” (Gordon Neufeld) and we are unable to consider the needs or feelings of others in that very moment.
Given that there is currently no maturation tonic (Sadly, nor will there ever be) we need to find other ways to help our children and each other to grow up with mixed feelings. One of the most helpful things we can do for our children is to model our own mixed feelings for them each day by saying things like “Part of me wants to stay up and watch tv all night, but part of me knows that tomorrow I’ll be really grumpy” or “Part of me wants to drive my car really fast, but part of me knows that it wouldn’t be safe to do so.” Hearing you express your mixed feelings will set the stage for them to do the same. Please remember though, when you are sharing your adult mixed feelings, don’t share the ones you have right now about them! A real relationship breaker would be to have a parent say to their child, “I’m so mad with you right now that part of me wants to beat you to a pulp, but part of me doesn’t want to do jail time!” Some mixed feelings are best kept in your head where they belong and can serve their true purpose which is to stop you from acting out on them.
Another suggestion would be for you to verbalise some of their mixed feelings aloud for them, especially for younger children who may not yet have the vocabulary needed to express their thoughts and feelings. It may go something like this, “Part of you wishes that you could eat that whole cake, but part of you worries about getting a big tummy ache” or “Part of you really wants to hit your sister right now because you are so mad with her, but part of you doesn’t want to hurt her because you love her” or “Part of you wants to kick your brother but part of you knows that you would get into big trouble and you don’t want that.” Do this in a calm and loving manner, don’t come across as passing judgement on their behaviour. Just call it as you see it, try and draw out their mixed feelings by labelling them for them. It gets easier to do the more often you do it, just don’t do it all the time, you’ll drive them crazy!
Finally, parents please know that just because you create an awareness in your children of their mixed feelings today, does not mean that they will instantly stop wanting three pieces of cake or that they will forever more cease clobbering their little sister. What you are doing is sowing the seeds for maturation, growing them up from the inside out, so that they are able to feel their mixed feelings and hold onto them in the same place at the same time so that someday they will blossom into genuinely caring and considerate human beings, because that is their true potential. Your children are not selfish, they are lacking integration, they don’t yet have their mixed feelings. We all have moments like that and none of us like being labelled ‘selfish’ just because we temporarily lose our mix. Let’s take selfish out of our vocabulary because there really isn’t such a thing when you understand what is really missing is maturation.
True Growth takes time and we need to be patient because True Growth can’t be hurried, not by anyone.
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