The Nature of Children
“She acts as if the whole world revolves around her and she should always get what she wants.”
“He is always grabbing things out of his brother’s hands or saying things that hurt others. Why doesn’t he realize he is being disrespectful and rude?”
“She can’t seem to take ‘no’ for an answer to anything. She expects me to just drop whatever I am doing whenever she wants something.”
“I wish I could just get him to think before he does things. He is always getting into trouble.”
Do any of these comments sound familiar? If so, you are not alone. At one time or another, most parents worry that they are doing something wrong in raising their children because their kids seem so selfish and demanding.
It is natural for parents to expect that as children grow and mature, especially beyond the toddler years, their behavior will become more empathic, kind, and understanding. The reality for most children is that this path towards maturity can take many years, with cycles of progress followed by some backsliding.
While it may be frustrating to have children who appear to be self-centered, unrelenting, and impulsive, it can be comforting to learn that these traits are typical of the development of all children. It is only over time that children gradually learn:
that they are not the center of the universe and that other people exist who have feelings and needs that are not necessarily the same as their own;
that they can and sometimes have to wait before getting or doing what they want;
that they can gain improved judgment as a result of life experiences.
How Can Parents Support their Children’s Growth and Maturity?
So, how can parents gradually wean their children away from their natural state of self-absorption, impulsivity, and limited judgment?
Becoming Less Egocentric
To move your children away from egocentricity, you can:
model giving to those less fortunate. Share with your children when and why you make donations or other charitable contributions. These actions help to increase your children’s awareness of other people’s situations and help them realize that there is a world beyond themselves that can benefit from their attention.
show empathy toward your children as a way to teach caring behavior. When children are listened to and their feelings are accepted, they are more likely to respond to other people with understanding and compassion.
show appreciation and kindness in your daily interactions with other people.
use television shows and books to help your children consider how the different characters may be feeling in a given situation.
Becoming Less Impulsive
To counter impulsivity, you can:
help your children to see the benefits of having goals, teach them to set priorities, and reward them for doing so. By working toward a target, even very short or small ones, you can help your children learn to delay gratification and experience first-hand the benefits of waiting and planning.
teach them the difference between their wants (things they wish they could have) and their needs (things that are necessary for survival, safety, or health); children don’t automatically make this distinction. Acknowledge and affirm their “wants” as you teach them that they can plan for and wait to achieve them.
“You want to eat a cookie; your body needs to have a healthy lunch.”
“You want the new sandals; you need sneakers that you can wear on the playground.”
Children learn good judgment from:
being given the opportunity to make decisions about things that impact them, to think through problems that they encounter, and to learn from their mistakes.
knowing that they will not be blamed or shamed for their errors, children can approach real life experiences as occasions to grow and to discover how to make better choices in the future.
You have 18 or more years to instill these behaviors and attitudes in your children. Knowing that it usually takes at least that long for full maturity to occur can help you to be more patient and supportive of your children and more realistic in your expectations of them.
When you see lapses in your children’s judgment, in their empathy toward others, or in their ability to wait for something they want, you can thoughtfully consider what they need to learn in order to move toward increased maturity.