Teaching Selflessness - Dr. Charles Fay
When I think of the men and women who’ve served our country... as well as their families who’ve also made so many sacrifices... the word “selflessness” comes to mind. Without those willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, the freedoms we hold so dear would already be gone.
In honor of the self-sacrifice of veterans and their families, it seems appropriate to consider how we can instill these values in our children. When we do, they benefit and so does our world. It’s a win-win deal!
Ironically, people who have a healthy view of selflessness tend to be far happier than those who are self-absorbed. Many classic psychological theories and techniques have entirely missed this point. They focus on “getting in touch with self”... or “self- actualization”... or “personal growth” at the expense of emphasizing that personal growth and happiness result most naturally from occasionally placing oneself in the serving position to improve the lives of others. These theories ignore the documented physical reality that our brains are filled with “mirror neurons”… bundles of nerve cells enabling us to connect with others’ feelings meeting their needs as a result.
When we become too focused on ourselves we begin to peel an onion in search of a core. We spend our lives in a meaningless pursuit of something that doesn’t exist.
Let’s give our children an opportunity to lead truly impactful and fulfilling lives by teaching that it really is better to give than to receive.
Ensure that they have an attachment foundation of love and trust
Narcissism… the ultimate antithesis of selflessness… grows from one of two very different types of soils. The deepest type sprouts from the seeds of abuse, neglect, or chronic criticism, where early in life the child comes to view the word as a dog-eat-dog place.
The first year of life is all about knowing that someone loves me enough to consistently meet my physical and emotional needs. When I’m loved in this way, I have the foundation necessary for eventually learning how to selflessly love others.
Children who didn’t have this experience early in life need caring and committed adults… and often highly skilled therapists… who can help them establish this foundation of love and trust.
Teach them to serve you and their family
Narcissism also springs from the soil of permissiveness and overindulgence. Are your kids working hard to serve you… or are you doing all of the work? Children should not be treated as slaves. They should, however, be expected to do their fair share of work around the house… so they don’t believe their parents are slaves. Too many children look down on their mothers and fathers, viewing them as butlers, maids, and limo drivers, rather than loving authority figures.
Do your kids have a list of contributions (a.k.a. “chores”) that they need to complete by various days or times of the week?
Are you holding them accountable for failing to complete the duties by the prescribed deadlines?
Are you doing this with empathy… rather than anger, lectures, threats, or bribes?
Teach them to look at insides… not just outsides
A mother commented, “I was trying to teach my four-year-old that everyone has something deep inside that hurts. Everyone is dealing with some type of struggle or serious battle. Even people who look like they have everything together are still struggling with something. I kept saying, ‘In our family we try to look at the insides rather than the outsides.’ One day she innocently commented, ‘I don’t have an x-ray. How do I see inside somebody?’”
Selfless people don’t have x-rays… but they do learn to use x-ray thinking. They look at people from a deeper perspective, attempting to understand what is going on at the heart level. As a result, they are far less likely to become needlessly offended and self-protective. Instead, they are more likely to experience empathy and to serve by extending a listening ear and a helping hand.
As we go about modeling this important attitude, and talking about it with our kids, it’s important to remember that this is an exceptionally high level skill/attitude that many adults never master. Expecting our kids to suddenly “get it” is a sure way of setting everyone up for frustration and disappointment. The wiser approach is to view this as a lifelong process that will gradually rub off on them as they grow and become adults.
Expect tangible mini acts of service
There’s a “train” at Denver International Airport that shuttles passengers from the main terminal to the various airline concourses. Most people have to stand, but there is some seating at the front and rear of each car. It’s almost always the same scene: The seats are filled with children, teens, and young adults, while older… even elderly people… are forced to stand.
Is there something wrong with this picture? Should our children be seated when older adults have to stand? What wonderful lessons can be learned when we expect them to rise and offer their seat to someone else?
Are your kids holding doors open for people? When in line are they offering someone to go ahead of them? Are they offering to carry something for someone who is struggling?
Some rough-looking, heavily inked and pierced teens made my day. As I struggled with five big sheets of drywall in the Home Depot parking lot, they rushed my way and yelled, “Dude… you need some help! Let us get it, man. That’s too heavy for one dude to do.”
I wanted to hug those guys, but I thought that might be weird.
Are you modeling these mini acts of service? Are you finding ways for your kids to follow your example?
Too many of us feel compelled to entertain our kids anytime they experience a bit of dullness. Can you see the connection between doing so and them believing they are the center of the universe? Is it good for kids to be occasionally bored while you shop, while you have a conversation with someone, while you wait in line, or while you spend a quiet weekend at home?
Many young children carry instant boredom-prevention devices. Since they have a phone or tablet, and have constant access to videos as their parents shop or do similar less-than-stimulating things, they are being entertained. When we do this, are we stealing from them? Might this practice be contributing to the number of young people who have absolutely no impulse control skills?
Limit exposure to popular media
Are the relationships portrayed in most television shows, modern movies, and other media, the kinds we want our kids emulating? While we can certainly make a case for kids being exposed to some level of dysfunctional behavior… so that it gives us an opportunity to visit with them about the downsides of such behavior… a steady, unsupervised diet of on-screen narcissism and negativity is certain to make our job of raising selfless kids much harder.
Community service… as a privilege not a punishment
Too frequently “community service” is viewed as something only done by drunk drivers and others who’ve broken the law. In a Love and Logic home, community service is not designed to be a punishment… it’s intended to be an opportunity… a privilege. It’s intended to be seen as an opportunity to be part of something important, needed, and noble.
Research has demonstrated that kids who serve in their community are far less likely to get involved in high-risk activities such as drug use, sex, gang involvement, etc. They’re also more likely to do well in school.
Great parents occasionally say things like, “This is great! Today we get to go over to the nursing home on Elm Street and read to seniors who can’t see well enough to read for themselves.” Or they say, “The park is trashed. It’s going to feel so good to help out by cleaning it up!”
Great parents also ignore complaining and eye-rolling as they load the family into the car. Just like most things that are good for them, kids often need a bit of prodding to realize how good it feels to help. A friend of mine commented, “They hated it at first. Now they love it. It’s become a real family bonding opportunity.”
Plenty of time and neurological development
Children tend to be self-centered by nature. Developmentally speaking, the move toward consistently selfless thinking is something that takes well into adolescence or young adulthood. In fact, many older adults struggle with this concept. I struggle with this concept!
In honor of our veterans and their families, can we give some careful thought to how we might raise young people who understand selflessness… and the fact that the best way to feel good about oneself is to serve?
Find more practical parenting solutions for military families in our audio Love and Logic for Heroes. If you are a member of a military family, call us at 800-338-4065 to receive this MP3 download at no cost.