Interview: How much selfishness is healthy for children?

What are the characteristics of selfish children? And how can parents strengthen a shy child so that it does not go under? A conversation with psychologist Stefanie Rietzler.

If you divide children into two drawers, there seem to be the selfish children who usually only think of themselves – and on the other hand the considerate children who often hold back and are not always preoccupied with their own advantage (and unfortunately often due to also drawing the short straw).

When we think of Pippi Longstocking, we imagine the strongest girl in the world who can do anything and always believes in herself. But if we are to be honest, then Pippi is social but also a little selfish and likes to be a leader. And yet she is still the role model for many children today. Her best friend Annika, on the other hand, is more of a reserved, well-behaved girl who follows rules and puts her own needs first – in contrast to the wayward Pippilotta.

But how much selfishness is actually healthy? We have it with you Psychologist and author Stefanie Rietzler spoken. Among other things, she has written two books on self-esteem and self-confidence (For parents: “Safe, brave, free – this is how children find inner strength”; For children: “Jaron on the trail of happiness”) and runs an academy for learning coaching in Zurich.

PARENTS: From an early age, many children are boxed in and labeled as either selfish or social. Should we be more careful with such assessments?

Stephanie Rietzler: Especially with children, we should be careful with such attributions. For young children are not able to put themselves in the place of their fellow human beings, put their needs aside and understand how their behavior affects others.

When are children able to empathize with their fellow human beings?

Most children can not empathize with others and take their perspective into account until they are around four to six years old – and only to a certain extent.

Many parents probably do not even know it …

No, and they are similarly frustrated when the toddler behaves in a supposedly ruthless way: “He wants to knock his head through the wall!”, “You can not just tear your brother’s toy away, you must be able to share it. Too!” When we describe children’s normal behavior as selfish, we are doing them an injustice. Children can only act really selfishly from school age if they consciously gain benefits at the expense of others.

But not all children do that, are they?

Like all of us, children have a strong need to belong. They want to be accepted by others and depend on being valued as part of a family, class, clique or friendship to thrive. Associated with this is the fear of being rejected by others. In some children, this fear is so great that they adapt to their surroundings and constantly put their wishes and needs aside. Here there is a risk that they fall short, are exploited by friends and classmates and do not reach their goals.

What advice would you give to children who are often neglected?

Once accompanied, these children must be allowed to discover: Is it still giving and taking, or am I being exploited? Where do I make myself small? Where do others get an advantage at my expense? And they should learn to fight back.

And how much elbow mentality is healthy?

It should not be about determining the right level of elbow-jerk mentality or the optimal dose of selfishness. It is much healthier for children to develop their own inner voice and listen to it. That they can perceive what they need and what is important to them; that they express and advocate for their needs; that they can distance themselves from the demands and expectations of others if they are not good for them.

In short: it is important to develop a healthy self-confidence and self-confidence instead of a brutal mentality and selfishness.

Isn’t there also an advantage to being selfish?

Children who are very dominant often have a strong position in the class or clique when they go to primary school. Everyone wants to be on good terms with them. For these small leaders, it feels good to be relatively immobile. They enjoy being courted by others and being able to set the tone in the group. They decide what is played, who is allowed to participate and must rarely put their wishes aside. While some parents see this with a worried look, others are proud that their child seems so independent and does not let others interfere.


Of course, selfishness also has its price: Children who appear very dominant, hardly learn to show consideration for others and are therefore unable to deal with frustration if, contrary to expectations, they can not assert themselves. And as soon as cooperation is required, conflicts are inevitable. Other group members feel controlled around and are annoyed that their opinions are not being heard enough. Selfishness can make you lonely.

How can parents prevent their child from becoming too selfish?

We can convey to the children in everyday life and set an example: “You have needs and desires that you are allowed to express and they are taken into account. All other people also have needs and desires and wishes that there “We are looking for solutions as a family, so it’s true for everyone.”

And it also affects children how their caregivers handle third parties.

“Do mom and dad take on others too? Can my parents treat others and celebrate success with them? Or do they quickly become jealous and think they are neglected?”

What else can parents do?

Together with the children, we should focus on where people behave in solidarity, support each other and give hope.

Studies also show that loneliness promotes selfishness.

It is therefore helpful if parents ensure that their child has enough opportunities to cultivate friendships.

How can parents strengthen their child when they often lose because they are more reserved than other children?

When a child has difficulty standing up for themselves, caregivers often demand that the child “finally assert itself” or “not listen to what other people think of them.” Particularly reluctant children experience additional stress as a result. They can now only decide whose pressure they give in to the parents’ or the group’s. They can no longer listen to themselves and hear their own inner voice.

How do parents do better?

Instead, let’s see how difficult it is for our reserved child to differentiate. Now we can discuss with him how he feels that he is no longer feeling well in the group, and in what situations he would like to dare to react differently.

For example: “Luca seems to think it’s very important that you come with me. How is it for you?” We can help the child see their inner conflict by saying, “You do not really want to go – but you feel you have to earn the friendship somehow? And that Luca gets angry when you say no? ” Now you can think about how the child can react.

Maybe you add sentences together, maybe you even want to practice it in role play. It is also important that there is a climate in the family where the child’s “no” is respected.


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