Why Are Some Kids Selfish?

Some kids just don't understand that it's the thought behind gifts that truly counts. Explore why some kids are selfish and what you can do to curb the me, me, me.

why-are-some-kids-selfish
Illustration by Brent Mosser

Although it has been said that “it is better to give than receive,” if you talk to most kids, they’ll tell you the opposite.

I can’t recall how many times my own kids have said “I have this already,” “I didn’t want this one,” or asked, “is this it?” when opening a gift. Even though, many times, I spent a month’s salary and countless hours tracking down said gift.

Whether you coin this behavior as entitled, ungrateful or just plain selfish, why do kids often act this way, especially during the holidays? We asked some experts to weigh in.

Their brains are still developing

Dr. Jerry Bubrick, senior psychologist at the Child Mind Institute Anxiety Disorder Center, says that our brains grow and develop up to the age of 24. While brain development varies from person to person, generally empathy, emotional control and thinking things through come at the later phases.

“Sometimes, parents make the mistake of thinking our children should react to things like adults, but we must remember they aren’t responding like adults because they aren’t adults,” Bubrick says.

Bubrick cautions parents not to react to kids with anger, even though it’s a tempting response.

“Don’t call kids selfish,” he says. “They won’t hear what you are saying. They’ll only hear that you are mad at them.”

Look for the teaching moments

When it comes to discussions about giving and receiving gifts, Bubrick suggests that leading up to the holidays, parents make comments to their children such as “We got your list and will do what we can to get you the things on the list. If we are not able to, we hope you will be happy with what you got.”

According to Arthur Lavin, a pediatrician and chair of the American Association of Pediatrics Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, this tactic will only work with kids beyond age 4.

“By ages 4 to 6 years old, if your child is raised to be confident in their own self, then they should be able to really experience deep joy at giving presents, and should be encouraged to do so. This skill only grows from age 6 and on,” Lavin says.

Model appreciation

Bubrick also recommends parents model the behavior they want to see in their kids. For example, if a parent is suggesting that a child show more appreciation, he says “be consistent in letting your kids continuously see you hold doors open for others, saying hello to the less fortunate.”

Lavin adds “With these skills in hand, being able to enjoy caring for others will come naturally, and can also be encouraged, modeled, and supported.”

Other ways adults can model this behavior include:

  • Include gratitude in daily conversations; don’t just talk about it on Thanksgiving or when a situation arises.
  • Find a family volunteer project: whether it is making and sending cards to the troops overseas or making blankets for animals in a shelter, do fun “give backs” as a family and showcase the impact of these actions.
  • Practice saying “thank you:” let your kids hear you say thank you sincerely and often.
  • Let kids help out around the house: besides cleaning their room, they can take on chores that keep the house running, such as loading/unloading the dishwasher, taking out the garbage, etc.
  • Donate to others: Start a family project to make toiletry kits for the homeless, or go through closets and donate clothes, toys and books to those in need.

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