Young boy presents a gift to his mother


Helping kids move from selfish to selfless

  • Watch for persistent lack of empathy, appreciation, and excessive focus on self in older children as indicators of concerning behavior.
  • Self-centered behavior is most prominent in younger children, evolving as they grow older and their social skills develop.
  • Effective strategies include positive reinforcement, role modeling, and engaging children in discussions about empathy and giving.

With the holidays here and gift giving in full swing, our kids' ability to give, receive and share are on full display. 

It's helpful to understand what we can expect from our children at different ages regarding selfish and selfless behavior and how we can help them be considerate of others. 

What we can expect at different stages
From a developmental perspective, having a "self-only" focus shifts toward a "self-and-others" focus as we age and our brains mature. Some research suggests that our abilities to control impulses, make decisions and think in a less self-centered way occurs between the ages of 6 and 13. So younger kids are naturally more self-centered. 

As a parent, you will need to be your child's brain mentor from toddler through the teen years and even into early adulthood. The last part of the brain to mature is the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with impulse control and decision making. This is why you as a parent may feel you sound like a broken record when guiding your kids to be less selfish. Take comfort in knowing that you're actually helping your child's brain make connections that are necessary for the social world we live in today. 

Signs your child is acting selfishly beyond what's age appropriate
As kids get older, they will still have moments of selfishness. Even as adults we act selfishly from time to time—it's natural. 

Some signs that an older child is being what some would call "spoiled" or "rude" include: 

  • not being able to talk about the value of giving
  • constantly not thinking of others and only focusing on self
  • not feeling bad for others when they are hurting or in pain
  • routinely being unappreciative for things given to them

How can we nip selfishness in the bud and encourage kids to consider others?
Turning selfish behavior around can look different when dealing with someone aged 2 versus 12. When kids are little, you should focus on repetition, learning social skills, sharing, volunteering, giving and being able to think about other's needs as a learning experience. Model helping others and sharing. Praise these behaviors in your kids when you spot them. Positive reinforcement works wonders. 

For older children, make sure they are doing some volunteer activities and engaging in giving campaigns. Talk about the events people go through across the world and what it might feel like to be in someone else's shoes.

When you see selfishness in your kids, set good boundaries and limits. Be consistent. Teach, talk and show what it means to think of others and do for others without strings attached.


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