Preschoolers are all about “me first.” They only look at reality in terms of how it affects them: I need all the cookies. I want to watch this TV show. Mine, mine, mine. It’s a self-absorbed time of life.
Part of the reason for this behavior is that since the fall of mankind, we’ve had a tendency to go our own way and do our own thing. That’s part of the human condition, and something we all have to deal with throughout our lives. Hopefully we’re seeing great improvement along the way!
But another reason for selfishness is developmental in nature: Preschoolers are still forming their sense of self — who they are, what they feel and who they can relate to. They’re “wet cement” at this stage of life. They need to learn about and experience themselves as a person with an identity. And the combination of these two realities makes for a preschooler who has a hard time being empathetic and generous toward others.
Don’t get discouraged: This isn’t a problem in parenting. It’s a normal process of parenting. Help your children navigate the two areas of taking responsibility for their lives and being considerate of the feelings of others. A preschooler can be giving and generous. Here are a few tips to help you get there:
Let your child know that his or her needs are OK.
Your child’s need to be loved, to have choices, to have a special toy, to be listened to, are all good and typical experiences. You’re teaching your child to guard his heart (Proverbs 4:23). This is one key to generosity. We give to the extent that we have been given to. A loved child can become a loving child. So help your child get her cup filled up inside and have something to offer others.
Model and teach empathy.
Empathy is the ability to feel the pain of someone else. It’s the basis of love: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:31) Be empathetic with your child and make sure you’re demonstrating empathy at home. Let him see Dad and Mom being empathetic with each other and with siblings: “Sorry you had a hard day, Honey. It sounds like it was really tough.” When you raise kids in a culture of empathy, they’re able to see that’s how people relate to each other.
Spell out the rules.
Your preschoolers are still baby-steppers in empathetic skills. So you also must add the rules of good behavior to their life. Make clear that while it’s OK to have desires and opinions, other people’s feelings matter too, and that’s something we require at home.
For example: “Manuel, you’ve had the toy long enough. Let Bryan play with it now.” You’ll probably get an argument. Calmly persevere: “I know you still want it, but you’ve had it long enough. Please give the toy to him now.” You may even have to give your child a limit, so he’ll know this is a big deal. Our booksRaising Great Kids and Boundaries with Kids describe how to handle these situations.
It’s important not to expect deep empathy from your preschooler yet. This will come later if you consistently use the tips above. Consider yourself a success if you see a lot of selfishness in your children, but over time your reminders to share are met with less and less protest.
You also should see the beginnings of spontaneous generosity in your kids. That’s the sweet spot of parenting. So many moms get discouraged because their preschooler isn’t Mother Teresa at 4 years old. Instead, keep being empathetic and generous with your kids and keep requiring that they share.
Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend, psychologists, leadership coaches and the authors of many books, selling over 5 million copies, including Raising Great Kids, Boundaries, Boundaries with Kids and Mom Factor – as well as the hosts of the syndicated national radio program “New Life Live.” Want More? You can experience the wit, wisdom and understanding of Dr. Cloud and Dr. Townsend through the Solutions Audio Club. Each month you’ll receive four exceptional audio recordings by the doctors, mailed to you home. For more information or for a complete list of their extensive resources and speaking engagements, call (800) 679-HOPE or visit their website at cloudtownsend.com.
This originally appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of Hello, Dearest. If you didn’t get a copy and would like your own, you can subscribe to get Hello, Dearest in your mailbox every season. If you subscribe, forward your receipt to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll shoot a copy of the current issue in the mail to you for free … just because we like you.