Read an Excerpt
I began the journey of understanding children twenty-five years ago when my identical twin sons were born. Those five-pound sacks of sugar filled our home and consumed my life in one glorious moment. Before their arrival our house was a comfortable, peaceful place for two adults working together to find their way through school, marriage, and life. After our children's birth our quiet home became a busy nursery. Two swings replaced an overstuffed chair in our tiny living room. Two, yes, two playpens lined the wall opposite the swings. Two high chairs filled the breakfast nook, leaving us just enough room to squeeze past the chairs on our way to the kitchen.
My daily ritual of rising early to see my husband off to work, dress, and then head out to conquer the world of interior design was radically changed. The cost of daycare for two trumped my salary. Our pocketbook and our hearts told us I needed to spend my days at home with our sons, a decision for which I have been forever grateful.
I traded in my business suits for jogging suits and replaced discussions of new sofas and fabrics with talk of potty training methods and changing "poopy" diapers. Despite the new challenges and odors, which could be downright disgusting, I loved being a mom. I found great dignity in changing those diapers. I now had a higher calling to give of myself in raising two little boys who would one day become men who would give of themselves to the world.
I was filled with more questions than I ever had in design school. Who could I turn to with answers to my parenting questions? My own mother, of course. She offered her experiential wisdom and then recommended I use my one-track mind to my advantage.
I set my one-track mind in motion and became focused on parenting. I read everything I could find from Dr. Spock to Dr. Dobson. From Penelope Leach to Terry Brazelton. I read deep psychological perspectives on the evolution of child-rearing in America and easy-to-read commonsense commentaries about raising "happy" children. If a book was in the parenting section, I pulled it down and devoured it.
What did I learn? Truth be told, after reading what the experts had to say, this first-time mom had more questions than answers. Should I put my babies on scheduled feedings, as my mother and grandmother had done, or should I feed them on demand, per the advice of current experts? One insisted that my sons needed to know the alphabet by the age of two, their addition tables by the age of three, and that they had to read by the age of four or they would never succeed in school. Another said that children need free play, and lots of it, to be prepared for socialization in school. It seemed the experts disagreed on every issue but one. There was a consensus that children need to feel good about themselves.
In many ways I bought into this philosophy. That is, I did until my sons entered kindergarten and I began to see the results. My attempts to reason with my five-year-olds created half-hour discussions that left me exhausted and my sons just as confused about what I had asked them to do as they had been thirty minutes earlier. When I allowed my sons to choose their menu for dinner, our mealtimes were often miserable because invariably they chose something we didn't have on hand, became upset, and then refused to eat anything else. I was trying my best to let my children decide what they wanted to do when they wanted to do it, as the experts had instructed, but I was beginning to think that maybe this instruction was nonsense. Then, when I read that I would damage my sons' self-esteem if I didn't applaud them with a "good boy" and a treat every fifteen minutes, I knew that what I'd been reading was ridiculous.
I wanted to raise sons who would become productive members of society, not puppy dogs who only did as they were told in order to receive a treat. I didn't want my children to expect special treatment or to be unable to function without applause. I didn't want them to grow up as greedy little monsters. I wanted to raise gentlemen who could put the needs of others ahead of their own wants. Anyone who's been through the "me, mine, and what's-yours-is-mine phase" of a two-year-old knows that all of us are born selfish. I didn't want to feed my boys' innate selfishness; I wanted to get rid of it.
I continued my study, although I narrowed my sources as the years passed. I threw out the philosophies that didn't work and kept only the ones that did. I read Scripture with new eyes, looking for the jewels that spoke directly to shaping and molding my sons to become the men God created them to be. I wanted to do my part without interfering with God's part.
As I've worked with children and parents over the last twenty years, I've become convinced that our overemphasis on self-esteem and happiness is the reason our society has become self-absorbed, self-conceited, and self-consumed.
In the following pages, we'll take a closer look at the evidence, and at how you can reverse this trend and empty your child's heart of self-centeredness and fill it with others-centeredness. I'm not going to give you easy answers. There are none. But contrary to the thinking of today, there are incorrect and correct answers. I'll do my best to give you correct answers.
Raising unselfish kids is difficult, but I assure you, it is possible, and the results are well worth it.
Raising Unselfish Children in a Self-Absorbed World © 2008 Jill Rigby
The Mirror or the Window?
Once upon a time a queen sat at her spinning wheel, gazing through a nearby window and thinking of her child to come. She imagined a daughter with ebony hair, rosy-red cheeks, and skin white as snow. Sadly, the queen died after giving birth to a precious princess, who possessed all the qualities the queen had hoped for.
In time, the king took for himself another wife. She was beautiful, but she was also proud and arrogant, dismissive of her new daughter, and unable to bear the thought of anyone surpassing her in beauty.
Every morning the queen stood before her magic mirror and inquired, "Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who in this land is fairest of all?"
To this the mirror answered, "You, my queen, are fairest of all."
The queen was satisfied, for she trusted the mirror spoke the truth.
The sweet princess, who was called Snow White, grew up to become even more beautiful than the queen. One day when the queen queried her mirror. "Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who in this land is fairest of all?" the mirror answered, "You, my queen, are fair; it is true, but Snow White is a thousand times fairer than you."
The queen was outraged; envy and pride grew like a weed in her heart until she had no peace day or night. The vain queen ordered a huntsman to take Snow White into the woods to be killed. But he had kindness and spared her life and warned her that she wouldn't be safe from the wicked queen unless she hid in the woods.
Deep in the woods Snow White found a small cottage that belonged to seven dwarfs, who welcomed her into their lives. She found contentment as a humble servant to her adoring dwarfs, until the wicked queen showed up and fed her the poisonous apple. But not to fear, a handsome prince rescued Snow White and they lived happily ever after. The queen? "She was forced to dance in red-hot shoes till she fell down dead."
I don't believe in fairy tales, but I do believe we can learn a lot about human nature from the retelling of familiar stories of old.
Why couldn't the vain queen be content to be a beautiful woman? What happened in her childhood that made her so desperate to be the most beautiful woman in the world? Why was the mirror her best friend? Why couldn't "enough" be enough?
The selfish queen had no empathy for a poor child who had lost her mother, and her cruelty forced her stepdaughter to flee the home she knew. The queen was so focused on herself that she couldn't see the child who desperately needed a mother's love. Choosing to cling to fleeting satisfaction that was here today and gone tomorrow, the queen denied an innocent child the love she deserved.
Just as the mirror magnified the queen's self-absorption, so it is with us. When we look at the world through a mirror, we view each event, every word and circumstance, as how they affect us. Our innate selfishness is magnified, and we give way to the part of our heart that desires to have it "my way," to the place of self-centeredness that wants to be worshiped and adored.
Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. 1 Corinthians 13:12
Sad to say, many parents have led their children to the mirror by telling them through words and showing them in actions that "It's all about you." Of course, parents don't intend to send this damaging message, but in their desire to give their children what the experts say kids need high self-esteem parents often hand children a mirror as soon as they are born. In their desire to make their kids "happy," many parents smother their children with attention, lavish gifts for every A, and tell them they can be anything they want to be, do anything they want to do, and have anything they want to have. Out of a desire to help their children feel good about themselves, parents often crown their kids as prince or princess of their domain.
But rather than growing up to be grateful, selfless, and thankful, these children are turning out to be ungrateful, greedy, and resentful, even toward their parents the very folks who have given them everything. And why not? Children who look at the world through a mirror see themselves and no one else yet they are never satisfied.
The Mirror One day a rich man of a miserly disposition visited a rabbi, who took him by the hand and led him to a window. "Look out there," he said. The rich man looked out into the street. "What do you see?" asked the rabbi. "I see men, and women and little children," he replied. Again the rabbi grabbed his hand and took him to a mirror. "What do you see now?" "I see myself," the rich man replied. "Behold, in the window there is glass and the mirror is glass also. But the glass of the mirror is covered with silver. No sooner is silver added than you cease to see others and see only yourself."3
But what if we put the mirrors down? What if we helped our children see beyond themselves? What if we led our children to the window? The following story gives us a glimpse of what could happen.
Mary Lennox was a most disagreeable child. A classic aristobrat. And rightly so. Her father was a high-ranking British government official in India. Her self-indulgent mother found little time for her daughter because she was always busy with social functions, beauty treatments, and gazing in her mirror.
No wonder Mary never smiled. She raised herself while servants looked after her needs. She could have anything she desired, with one exception, the attention of her parents. By the time she was ten she was filled with arrogant bitterness, so self-consumed she demanded that others bow to her every whim.
Mary's aunt and uncle, Archibald and Lilias Craven, lived on a beautiful country estate in Yorkshire, England, with their son, Colin. Lilias was a wonderful mother. She lived her days sharing the wonder of God's creation with her husband and son in their garden. Tragically, Lilias passed away when Colin was a young child. In deep grief, Archibald withdrew into himself, closing his heart to Colin and the gate of the garden to all.
When a cholera epidemic in India took the lives of Mary's parents, she was sent to live with her uncle Archibald. There she found her cousin to be as miserable as she was. Ten-year-old Colin had not walked since his mother died. He spent his days in bed, self-absorbed in his fear, convinced he would contract a terrible disease if he dared venture outside his bedroom walls. His father spent his days traveling through Europe to escape his pain. Colin longed for his father's affection. Instead, servants waited on him hand and foot to keep him calm and satisfied.
One foggy morning Mary discovered the overgrown gate and entered the garden. She walked among the out-of-control weeds and forgotten plants. Her heart beat a new rhythm at the thought of bringing the garden back to life for Colin and his father. She longed to give herself in service, so that she might forget her own misery.
With the help of a new friend, Dickon, Mary spent her days pulling weeds and planting new flowers. She poured herself into the garden, finding a new life through giving rather than taking.
Mary shared her newfound exuberance for life with Colin, urging him to look out the window of his bedroom and to venture into the world beyond. She encouraged him to "get over himself" and come help in the garden as a gift for his father and to honor his mother's memory. Mary's love for the garden gave Colin the courage to try.
With Mary and Dickon's encouragement Colin made daily trips to the garden. No longer did his window serve as a reminder of the world that had left him behind; it became a passageway to freedom as light poured in each morning bringing new opportunities.
As days passed, the children's former self-centeredness turned to self-forgetfulness. Achy muscles and hot temperatures didn't deter their work. The misery that had consumed their minds disappeared as their hearts filled with compassion. They stopped dwelling on what they didn't have, because they found what they needed, a purpose beyond themselves, not in serving themselves, but in serving others.
Colin soon found the courage to put his feet on the ground. His legs quivered under the weight of his body as he took his first steps. Just like a newborn lamb who finds his legs, Colin's wobble soon became a steady gait.
Receiving word that his son desperately needed him, Archibald rushed back to the estate to find Colin running to meet him. His son's unselfish love broke through Archibald's self-inflicted prison and set him free.
Francis Hodgson Burnett's timeless characters in The Secret Garden lost their self-absorption and became who God created them to be when they looked beyond themselves to discover the love they needed. Mary found purpose in God's creation as she worked tirelessly to restore the garden to its former beauty. Archibald's heart opened to see how much his son needed him. And Colin? He found the courage to become who he was created to be when he "got over himself" and left his sorrows behind for joy in the garden.
In The Secret Garden, the children had to find their own way to the windows in their lives. But when parents lead children to see the world through a window rather than in a mirror, they take on the role God intended for them, and they teach their children to focus on how others feel and what others need.
And the amazing thing is that when children look through the window at the world beyond, their own image is reflected back to them in the glass but it's in the appropriate context, as part of the world, not the center of the world. When your children look beyond themselves, not only can they see others, they also find their purpose in serving others. They find respect for themselves as children of God, and this enables them to step into the world beyond the window to love others as they have been loved.
If we don't empty our children of their self-centeredness, which is our duty as parents, not only will they be intolerable to live with, they'll never become mature adults. If we don't teach our children to turn their attention away from the mirror and look out the window to the bigger world, sooner or later someone else will shatter their mirror for them and chances are, it won't be pretty. Evidence of this is rampant today.
Portraits of Children Who Look at the World through a Mirror
Five-year-old Timothy just won't take no for an answer. Yesterday when he accompanied his mother to the grocery store, he incessantly begged her for a treat. Initially she tried to resist, taking the easy way out, but eventually she gave in and bought her son a lollipop. As they were leaving the store, an elderly woman offered Timothy a fresh cookie from the deli. As he dropped the lollipop, he grabbed the cookie, and then demanded that the woman give him another for his other hand.
"Timothy, say thank you to the nice lady," Mom reminded her son. He shook his head while bellowing for the treat he had dropped. Mom apologized to the woman, but her son didn't, nor did he say thank you.
By the time Timothy and Mom arrived home, the cookies were on the floorboard and the lollipop was stuck to the backseat. Now Timothy was really upset. When his mom tried to console him, he kicked at her and yelled, "Get away."
Too bad Mom was more concerned about Timothy's happiness than about his ability to feel gratitude.
Jenny and the Jealous Girls
Throwing her backpack on the counter, twelve-year-old Jenny complained, "They all hate me. Another slumber party and I wasn't invited. I just don't get it, Mom. What's their problem? I have the coolest clothes. I know all the right things to say. If that's not good enough for them, I don't need 'em to be my friends. I'll find other friends."
"Honey, it's not you...they're just jealous. There's nothing you can do to help girls who envy you," Mom replied, consoling her daughter.
Trouble is, Jenny finds jealous girls no matter where she goes. A couple of months earlier she had made the same remark to her mother. With Mom's support, Jenny had transferred from one homeroom class to another in order get away from another group of "jealous" girls.
Out of her desire to keep her daughter happy and to feel good about herself, Jenny's mom isn't helping her daughter learn that to have a friend, you must be a friend.
Sarah Has Stars in Her Eyes
Sarah constantly pores over celebrity magazines and never misses the television talent shows. She recently auditioned for her high school play, wanting it to be her turn in the spotlight. But the world came to an abrupt halt for this starry-eyed sixteen-year-old when she was given the supporting role, not the lead. Devastated, she returned home to the comfort of her bedroom and the stuffed animals on her bed. Even though Sarah had just started taking voice and dance lessons, her parents responded to the news by telling her that she had more raw talent than any of the older girls, even though she hadn't studied as long as they had.
The following morning Sarah quit the play, saying that she couldn't settle for second-place billing. She and her parents had decided to look for a school that "would better appreciate" her talent.
Sarah's parents don't understand that they're not helping their daughter, they are instead hurting her by pumping her up with false praise, causing her to have an inflated view of her abilities.
Jonathan's Ladder to Success
Twenty-six-year-old Jonathan moved back home last month. Even though his classmates had voted him as "Most Likely to Succeed" his senior year in high school, Jonathan hasn't lived up to that promise. In college he had trouble making it to class on time because his alarm clock wasn't enough to rouse him. He didn't have a clue how to balance a checkbook, wash clothes, or cook a decent dinner. With no one around to take care of him, he couldn't take care of himself. He changed his major four times before earning a degree in general studies.
Following college, Jonathan didn't fare any better in the job market. When he did land a job, he didn't keep it for long. He always had a reason, of course: unreasonable expectations or hours that were "too regular." The source behind Jonathan's dissatisfaction? He had expected to start at the top without climbing the ladder. After all, hadn't he been guaranteed success?
Jonathan's parents had spent years taking care of their son rather than teaching him how to take care of himself, and now he's back home, totally dependent on them. They aren't happy about it, but don't know what else to do.
Timothy, Sarah, Jenny, and Jonathan were all taught to look at the world through a mirror. Now let me introduce you to some children who have been taught to look at the world through a window.
Portraits of Children Who Look at the World Through a Window
Jason's Birthday Party
Kids were running around in circles laughing those silly, giggly laughs that only five-year-olds can laugh. Jason's birthday party was going smoothly. No tears, hitting, pushing, or biting. When Jason began unwrapping his presents, Samantha and Julie started arguing over a pink party hat. Julie had a blue hat, but she really wanted Samantha's pink hat. Timothy wanted every toy Jason opened. Even Jason was only interested in finding the coolest of the cool in his gifts. He would open one, say thank you, and then open another, until he opened the dump truck of all dump trucks bright yellow with shiny wheels. He jumped up from the table to take his new, super-duper dump truck to his room.
Jason forgot about the other kids for a moment. He didn't mean to be unkind. A part of his heart wasn't at the party, but with his best buddy, Tommy, who was home in bed with the flu. Jason was worried about his friend and sad he wasn't there to celebrate with him. When the last guest left, Jason asked his dad if he would take him to visit Tommy. Jason's parents were always talking about how they could help other people, so it's no wonder he had such compassion for his friend. His mom was constantly making casseroles for friends who were sick and his dad cut the grass for their elderly neighbor every week.
Tommy's mom answered the doorbell to find Jason holding a shiny new dump truck. She invited him in and Jason ran to Tommy's room with the dump truck in tow. "Tommy, I brought you the coolest truck I've ever seen. Hope it makes you feel better."
Jason had learned at the tender age of five that it really is better to give than to receive.
Rebekah Doesn't Wanna Be a Wannabe
Rebekah's glad it's almost Christmas vacation. She's ready for a break from her busy schedule homework, two after-school clubs to keep up with, and piano lessons. She's looking forward to just hanging out with a few friends during the holidays. She's not a part of the "in" group, but that doesn't bother her. She'd rather have a few true-blue friends than be in the popular crowd.
Last year some of the cool girls had befriended Rebekah, and for a semester she had a taste of living the "it" girls' life, with all its backstabbing, gossip, and boy craziness. She had even turned her back on her old friends. When asked what had happened to those new friends, Rebekah said, "Hey, if being cool means you have to pretend to be somebody you're not, I don't want to be cool. I don't wanna be a wannabe! They're soooo into themselves. I know who my real friends are."
Rebekah doesn't have an identity crisis. Her parents have shown her who she is and who she belongs to. She knows that being in the cool group or not doesn't change who she is, a child of God and her parents' daughter. She doesn't need the cool girls to be somebody special. Rebekah has learned that real friendship happens in the heart, not in the superficial stuff the cool girls crave.
Luke's New Jacket
Luke was asked to serve on his tenth-grade court, which meant he would need a new jacket. He and his mom searched for a sport coat that was anything other than navy blue. Luke wanted something different, but different meant big bucks. His family couldn't afford the three-hundred-dollar houndstooth coat they found at a men's clothier, but Luke had a solution his mom could make him a jacket. She had made a sport coat for his dad years before.
Mom said she would give it a try, under one condition that Luke would go to the fabric store with her to select the right fabric. He quickly responded to his mom's request, "Let's go." They found the perfect cloth, lining, and leather buttons, all for under thirty dollars.
Luke's mom spent the next two weeks pinning, fitting, and sewing the jacket. During the final fitting she said, "Luke, I know it wouldn't be cool at your school to wear a homemade jacket. I just want you to know I won't tell anyone. It'll be our secret."
When the pep rally was over, the girls in Luke's class came rushing over to his mom to ask if they could learn to sew. Luke had told everyone his mom made his jacket. He wasn't worried about what the kids would think, he was proud of his custom-tailored jacket and his mom, too.
Luke's humility gave him confidence, didn't it? His mom had helped him understand that the man in the clothes is more important than the clothes on the man. No wonder the girls were so impressed!
Alissa's Success in the Real World
Countless job interviews, follow-up thank-you notes, and returned phone calls helped Alissa land a starting position with a new magazine. She didn't get the job she was hoping for, but at least she got her foot in the door. Two-and-a-half years later she received her second promotion. Her boss couldn't stop singing her praises.
Alissa had wanted to quit more than once, because the hours were long, the pay low, and she didn't feel appreciated or respected. She was the young kid on the block and was treated that way. But remembering all those "lectures" from her dad about earning respect kept her hanging in there. When she was discouraged, she would recall his words, "Folks will respect you if you give your very best. Do the right thing because it's the right thing to do, and sooner or later, good things will come." She decided to swallow her pride and accept that everybody has to start somewhere, and for her that meant starting at the bottom. She listened carefully to instruction and followed her assignments to the letter.
Outside the office Alissa volunteers with a youth program in her neighborhood. She's helping young girls with their middle-school writing assignments. A part of her longs to devote all her time to "her" girls.
No one can know for certain where Alissa will be in the years ahead, but one thing's for sure, she is headed in the right direction, as are Jason, Rebekah, and Luke.
So, parent, let me ask you: Which will you hold before your children the mirror or the window?
Our children's point of view makes all the difference in whether they grow up to become selfless adults who function well in the world because they have self-respect or whether they grow up to become self-absorbed adults who can't function well because they feel entitled.
In case you need a bit more convincing, let's take a closer look at the impact the goal of making children feel good about themselves has had on our society and on our children.
Raising Unselfish Children in a Self-Absorbed World © 2008 Jill Rigby