Kids Are Not Born Selfish. Here's How To Keep Them That Way.

Experts share their advice for parents who want to raise altruistic, empathetic children.
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Our kids have had an exceptionally bad hand dealt to them the past few months. They’ve been unwittingly separated from their entire social structure, their classrooms and all sense of normalcy. And parents have certainly struggled (to put it mildly) to keep up. So how can parents use this time at home ― whatever that looks like ― to teach their children other important life skills and foster their emotional intelligence? Enter EQ Not IQ, a package from HuffPost Parenting.

Many believe that humans are inherently selfish, but recent psychological research suggests this is not necessarily the case.

University of Michigan researcher Felix Warneken has spent 17 years studying toddlers, and he’s learned that kids display altruistic behaviors from a very young age.

What we’ve found is kids have a spontaneous biologically based tendency to care about others,” he told HuffPost. “They help early on, and they do that spontaneously without being asked, offered a reward or observed by their parents. This makes us believe that human nature is not purely selfish, but we’re equipped with some altruistic inclinations that can be elicited.”

Still, adults play a role in guiding kids as they grow older and learn to balance their sense of altruism and personal interests. So how can parents and caregivers support these natural tendencies and raise altruistic children? Read on for 12 expert-backed tips.

Talk about feelings.

“‘Altruism,’ defined as care and devotion to the service of others, starts with a basis of ‘empathy,’ or the ability to understand the feelings of another,” Aila Malik, a “kindness activist” and author, told HuffPost.

To help kids develop empathy, parents should emphasize emotional intelligence. Teach children to identify their feelings and process them. Create space for everyone in your family to feel comfortable expressing and discussing feelings in everyday life. Make EQ as much of a priority as IQ from an early age.

“Debrief ‘big feelings’ so that they can remember what it feels like to be stretched and stressed,” advised Malik. “Talking about the feelings can sometimes help them to identify those moments in other people.”

Share different perspectives.

As kids develop emotional intelligence, they become better at putting themselves in others’ shoes and understanding other experiences and perspectives. Parents can promote this skill through meaningful conversations.

“At any age, having a conversation about a real-life social conflict is one of the best ways to teach empathy and selflessness,” explained clinical psychologist and author Jenny Yip. “Helping your child process that conflict will allow them to be able to see more than one side of the story. If your child saw a classmate being teased, help your child understand how that classmate felt by talking about it.”

“You have to be able to model the ability to think outside of yourself and think about the welfare of others.”

- Clinical psychologist and author Jenny Yip

She added, “Ask your child questions: ‘How would you feel if that was you?’ When I’m working with my own kids, I always ask: ‘What can you do to help your brother feel better?’”

Keep it age-appropriate.

Keep these conversations developmentally appropriate and don’t fret too much if your children don’t automatically want to let others play with their toys.

“For preschool-aged and kindergarten-aged children, the concept of being separate from others is just developing and the emphasis could simply be sharing and being fair,” said neuropsychologist and author Amy Serin. “Conversations around simple daily life ― like taking a lot from a bowl of food at the dinner table when there are three more people who might want it ― can go a long way into developing awareness of other people’s needs and wants without giving everything up that the child wants.”

Model what you want to see.

What parents do is as important as what they say, often even more so. That’s why it’s important to look within yourself, assess your own sense of altruism and pledge to model these qualities for your kids.

“When it comes to being unselfish, it means you’re less concerned about external validation and what other people think of you, and more concerned about the well-being of others,” Yip said. “You have to be able to model the ability to think outside of yourself and think about the welfare of others.”

Use children’s books.

Children’s books are a great way to foster empathy and altruism. Children can connect with the characters’ stories and use them to supplement their own life experiences and observe displays of empathy (or lack thereof).

“Whenever I see my children going through a conflict, I look for books to help them understand even more ― to support what I’m trying to help them learn,” said Yip, adding that TV shows like “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” can also help kids understand their emotions.

“After you’re done reading the book or watching the show, talk about it with your children,” she said, “You never really know how much a child understands until you ask them questions ― so, ask!”

Emphasize gratitude.

Practicing gratitude has endless emotional benefits and can also be key to developing a sense of empathy and altruism. When kids appreciate and feel grateful for all they have, they may feel more inclined to support those who are less fortunate.

“Journal ‘things I am grateful for’ at regular cadences,” suggested Malik. “Start a family gratitude wall or jar for all to add notes/images of things they are thankful for. Start a dinner routine where everyone shares a gratitude.”

She also advised parents to express their gratitude for their children by leaving a note on their pillows or in their lunches highlighting a behavior that they’re thankful for.

As kids develop emotional intelligence, they become better at putting themselves in others’ shoes and understanding other experiences and perspectives.
Flashpop via Getty Images
As kids develop emotional intelligence, they become better at putting themselves in others’ shoes and understanding other experiences and perspectives.

Expose them to differences.

“Expose children to people and places that are different from them and their daily environments,” Malik advised. “Go on a hike, experience new landscapes, walk around different neighborhoods or visit new neighborhood parks, taste new foods and listen to different types of music. Learn about other traditions by listening to people’s stories, attending festivals, reading multi-cultural books, and watching documentaries.”

When you expose kids to the diversity of the world, follow up these experiences with discussions of what they learned and how they felt. Help them get comfortable pushing their boundaries and understanding their place in the big, multifaceted world around them.

Build problem-solving skills.

“When you’re helping a child build empathy, you’re also helping a child build problem-solving skills,” said Yip. “Teaching children how to take turns, how to give and take, how to be considerate of other people and care about others’ feelings all has to do with empathy.”

Yip recommends asking kids questions to guide them through situations with others, rather than taking over. Doing so trains their minds to see things from different perspectives and gives them good practice.

“Allow your children to fail,” she said. “Don’t figure it all out for them or give them the answers they need right away. Otherwise, if you do, your child will always expect other people to serve them, which is selfish. Failing also allows your child to learn how to appreciate success.”

Reward altruistic behavior.

Parents often praise their children for doing well on a test or getting a good report card. They can do the same for displays of empathy and altruism to offer positive reinforcement.

“Parents can start by reinforcing at an early age that sharing is a positive behavior by rewarding sharing and also by acknowledging it might be hard to share when kids really want to keep something all to themselves,” Serin said. “They can emphasize in preschool children that letting a friend use a swing they wanted was very kind and have the child notice how happy the friend looks using the swing.”

On the flip side, they can walk their children through lapses in empathy by helping them recognize their mistakes and understand the consequences of their actions.

“Ask questions,” suggested Malik. “How do you think [insert person’s name] felt when [state the mistake]? How would it feel if someone [state the mistake] to you? Do you have any ideas to help [insert the person who was impacted by mistake]?”

“Teaching children how to take turns, how to give and take, how to be considerate of other people and care about others’ feelings all has to do with empathy.”

- Yip

Volunteer as a family.

A good way to put altruism lessons to action is to engage in volunteer work as a family.

“These can be healthy activities that can bring about deeper conversations about privilege and how to help individuals and society as a whole if you have more than enough time, energy, or resources that could benefit others,” Serin noted. “Parents can seek opportunities for their children to get to know what they enjoy through volunteering. Finding things they want to do that are altruistic can take some time and planning, but is worth it in the long run.”

Involve them in charitable giving.

In the same vein, parents can involve their children in conversations about which causes to support as a family. Kids can also spread awareness and raise funds for organizations that mean something to them. They can make signs to thank helpers in their communities like postal workers, health care professionals, grocers and first responders.

“For older children with allowances or jobs, parents can have the child set aside a certain percentage of what they earn for charity,” Serin said. “Looking into what kind of charity the child might be interested in donating to can be a fun experience that helps children get to know their own preferences. Knowing the causes my children care about helps me tailor other potential activities for my kids and also gives me a window into what he really cares about beyond altruism. When we discuss what he wants to be when he grows up and what problems he wants to help solve, these themes reoccur and are top of the list in our discussions.”

Acknowledge a balance.

Serin emphasized that there’s a middle ground between pure selfishness and pure selflessness.

“Parents should not demand that their children give up everything for others because that could lead to co-dependent behaviors in adulthood such as denying that you have needs and giving up too much for someone else,” she said.

“In other words, taking turns and allowing everyone to have a fair amount of time on a swing would be an example of that healthy balance,” she added. “There is a balance of meeting your own needs and being kind and generous towards others as children mature into adulthood.”

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