Never Call a Child Selfish
3 reasons why you should never use that word with kids.
Posted Jan 19, 2021
A good number of adult clients I’ve seen in therapy over the years were called selfish as children.
That early label seems to be so sticky, it haunts people who received it even many decades ago.
Calling a child selfish is inappropriate at best, and deeply damaging at worst. Here’s why.
Selfish by Nature
If you were called selfish by a parent, renounce that label today. It should never have been assigned to you.
Here are three reasons why no one should ever call a child selfish:
1. Children are selfish. We’re all born pooping and crying and not being bothered if others have to run around doing things for us. That’s normal in the first stage of life.
When we’re very young, we’re not intellectually capable of seeing the world from a different point of view.
As we mature, we develop perspective. We learn to take others’ feelings into account, and we behave in more collaborative and less selfish ways.
But we all start out the same way: at the center of our own universe.
Calling a child selfish is like denouncing an infant for soiling her diaper. Given time, patience and adequate support, she'll grow out of it.
2. Most people never forget an early experience of being called selfish by an adult, especially a parent. It leaves a mark, and not a positive one.
Early negative comments burrow deep into the minds of children and can cause lifelong damage to their sense of being basically good.
A childhood label of selfishness may also interfere with the development of healthy entitlement. For example, the person may be unsure about claiming even reasonable rights as an adult.
Parents have the power to shape their children’s sense of themselves. Assigning damning labels like “selfish” can have a profound effect on self-image.
3. Children learn best by example, not by being shamed. If your parents tried to help you become more considerate of others, that was a worthy goal.
However, like empathy, considerate (as opposed to selfish) behavior is best taught by example.
Children whose parents regularly demonstrate, as well as talk about, unselfish behavior can more easily outgrow selfishness than those who are shamed for being selfish.
Of course, it’s important to teach children how to be decent to others, why we share, and the virtues of generosity.
Calling children selfish doesn’t accomplish any of those goals. It only suggests to them that they’re bad and should be ashamed of themselves.
How to Teach Unselfish Behavior
The best way to teach children how to take others into account is to take children into account.
Talk to them about why it’s important to listen to others, consider their feelings, and try to see things from their point of view. Show them how it's done.
Notice when children are being unselfish, and praise them for their behavior.
If your parents didn’t do those things for you, it’s likely their parents didn’t know to do those things for them. And so on up the line, going back many generations.
All families display patterns that have been woven through generations over time. No one alive is to blame for originating them.
Just know that if you were called selfish as a child, you don’t have to walk the earth wearing that label for the rest of your life. Drop it. It wasn’t appropriate then, and it’s probably not a good fit now.
If you called your child(ren) selfish when they were growing up, apologize. Tell them you were mistaken. If they’re ready to heal, your words will help.
In short, since name-calling is ineffective as a teaching tool and also can inflict lasting damage, no one should ever call a child selfish.