Will my children ever learn to think about others’ feelings? Why can’t they just be kinder? That was the lament one day when several of us were discussing our kids. One mother figured her children will be less selfish around age 25. She must not have children that are 25 yet.
I’m not saying all children are selfish, or that they are doomed to stay that way until their hair is gray and falling out. They won’t necessarily be that way until our hair is gray and falling out—but it could happen. Children don’t become unselfish at a certain age, just as they don’t enjoy working the day they turn 18. It must be taught, just like clearing the table or hanging up their towel after a shower.
It’s not something that only takes one lesson either. One mother told me that a certain lady was lucky because her children are all so well behaved and kind.
Does that mean what we teach them makes no difference? Does this mother not know how much work and effort and time and worry and tears it takes to turn a child into a kind, loving, hardworking adult?
Does she think it just happens, or that a child is going to be whoever he is going to be, no matter how hard the parent works?
A friend of mine had a large number of boys. They ran wild, not caring if they hurt others or damaged property. They did what they wanted with no regard for others. She just smiled, shrugged, and said, “Boys will be boys!”
Yes—but boys grow up to be men. That part happens automatically; growing up to be gentlemen does not. These gentlemen-in-training need to learn how to be thoughtful and caring and concerned for others. They need to learn to be unselfish.
How does that happen? Every day. Not just one day, but every day of their childhood. They learn it when their mother encourages them to hold the door for an elderly neighbor at church.
They learn it when their mother suggests they offer to weed a neighbor’s flowerbed, and then helps them do it. They learn it when their dad takes them along on a service project instead of letting them go play basketball with their friends.
They learn it when their mother asks them to share their bike with a friend who doesn’t have one.
They learn it when they discover that their words can help or hurt people, and that helping people is more gratifying than hurting them.
To be unselfish is to think of others. What does that person need? What would make their day easier? How can I help her smile? Does she need a hug? I bet that little girl would like to play with my doll. Let me pick that up for you. What can I do to help?
That last one is my favorite. So many husbands come home from work and expect their wives to get dinner, bring them the paper, and have the house and kids clean. There is no concern for the wife, who has also put in a full day being a mother, chauffeur, cook, referee, nurse, teacher, and so many more things.
In all honesty, if my husband did that...well, let’s just say that he might not get much dinner that night.
But my husband doesn’t say that. He puts his own wants aside when he comes in the door. After greeting his mob of children and me, he asks, “What can I do to help?” Those words have nearly brought me to happy tears more than once!
But unselfishness isn’t just actions. It can be manifested in your thoughts and words. To think of others is to put their happiness ahead of your own. A selfish person puts himself or herself ahead of others, even if only in his own mind. An unselfish person makes sure others are happy and cared for.
A word of caution, though: If a child is sent off to weed a neighbor’s flowerbed, he might consider it just another chore. But if the parent joins him, engages the neighbor in cheerful conversation, and works quickly and well, the child will learn a better lesson.
Being unselfish is not just a chore. It’s a way of thinking. It’s making sure that those around you are happy too. It’s knowing that other people are just as important as you are. It’s respect and it’s kindness.
Being unselfish takes time. Giving someone the gift of your time is a valuable thing for both individuals. One person feels needed, and one feels appreciated. As we give this gift to our children, they will learn from example how to consider others’ needs.
Unselfishness is sharing. Whether it’s time, a toy, a smile, a dinner, or anything else, the willingness to share shows kindness and love.
Donna Howard is a mother of ten children—yes, ten—a grandmother of seven, and has served as a foster parent. She has a bachelor’s degree in clarinet performance and composition. She teaches elementary music methods to education majors and owns her own band instrument repair business.