The Selfish Parent?

How do you know when satisfying your own needs and putting your child’s needs on hold will better serve their needs ultimately?

Now that I’m an adult, I definitely believe in the Golden Rule – “Treat others the way you would like them to treat you.” But when I was a child my mother had a great deal of difficulty trying to make me understand it. If there were two people and one piece of candy, it made sense to me that it should go to the person who would appreciate it most – me! That seemed especially true when the other person was my mother – after all, adults didn’t have such strong needs and feelings as children, did they? My mother, a kind soul, always managed to put the needs of her five children before her own. So I at least got the message that she wasn’t as important as us. But then, since I was the oldest child, she wanted me to put the needs of the little ones before mine, and that just plain didn’t make sense to me. She thought I was selfish. I thought that was just the natural way to be. I didn’t live in anyone else’s skin, I didn’t feel their needs or satisfactions, so they didn’t matter that much to me. I think that is the nature of childhood.

When I became a little older, I became obsessed with fairness. Among children, that is; adults didn’t count, since they were “over the hill” and in any case didn’t want things as much as kids did. So each box of chocolates had to be divided exactly evenly between the children, and each game had to be played by the rules. I was beginning to suspect, with shock, that other kids (though not adults) might have needs and feelings similar to my own. I’m not sure exactly when I figured out that adults were human too; probably not until I became one. And now I’m beginning to suspect that old people might also have feelings and be similar to me. Uh-oh.

If parents don’t teach children that other people matter, they won’t learn it. I have consulted to several parents lately whose teens treat them with utter disrespect. These are very nice, kind, giving parents who always give their children the benefit of the doubt, do things for them, and put up with constant swearing, rudeness, disturbance in the middle of the night, laziness, and complaints from their “spoiled brats.” The combination of a kind parent and a strong-willed, persistent child can lead to a teenage monster who has no respect for other people, Besides making her parents’ lives miserable, she tends to get ousted from schools and jobs regularly when employers and teachers will not put up with this treatment.

So – there are times when it is very important to make your child aware that you too have needs, and to insist that he or she respect your needs. Don’t let your child use your special personal possessions. Don’t get up to look for something she has lost when you’re taking a nap, and show your irritation if she interrupts you. Require her to wait until dinner is served, or to help make it, rather than giving her a snack 20 minutes before dinner is ready. Expect her to eat what you have cooked, rather than making a whole new meal because she suddenly decides she doesn’t like potatoes. Let her know when you are tired or sick and need help. A child will only learn to respect the rights, needs, and feelings of others, if she is constantly confronted with these rights, needs and feelings.

When a child is little, she is egocentric, and naturally unaware of the needs and feelings of other people. She begins to become more aware of these when she is required to think about what other people may feel, and to treat them with respect. Children learn to care for and respect others from our example, our teaching, and the limits we set on their behavior. I think my mother was actually too unselfish, and as a result I stayed “selfish” longer than I would have if she had been a bit firmer about our respecting her needs and feelings. Her belief was that one should always put others first. My belief is that you should “love your neighbour as yourself” – neither more than less than yourself. And that goes for your parents and your children as well.

Now, back to your original question : How do you know when satisfying your own needs and putting your child’s needs on hold will better serve their needs ultimately? The key word is “when.” Part of that “when” is about the age of the child. Childhood is made for learning and play; play is the child’s special way of trying out new ways of being. It’s wrong to make a child work all the time just because we need help, and deny them the studying and playing time they need. I met an eight-year-old the other day who had to sweep the floors every day instead of playing with her friends. Her mother is very busy, but that’s unfair to the child. Chores should be assigned for the purpose of teaching children how to do things and how to take responsibility, not to relieve an adult’s overload.

But at the same time, we need to teach children to take responsibility and respect the needs of others. So we gradually make them aware of our own needs as they grow older. Little children aren’t able to delay their needs for very long. They need us to be there for them most of the time, so they can know they are loved and taken care of. But as they grow older, we have to set limits on their behavior and make our needs known to them. When your new baby cries at night, you get up, perhaps take her into your bed, and feed her without hesitation. When she’s two years old and just wants to play, it’s a different story, and you let her know you want her back in her own bed as soon as possible so you can sleep. When your four-year-old interrupts all your telephone calls, you’re entitled to tell her firmly to wait until you’ve finished, but then finish within her attention span, which is about five minutes, not an hour. An older child should be expected to wait longer, but not all evening. It’s a matter of balancing your child’s needs, your own needs, and your child’s developmental stage, and making moment by moment decisions about whose needs should come first. If you both live and teach the Golden Rule, you can’t go too far wrong.