Selfish Kids: How Much Elbow Mentality Is Healthy for Your Child?

What characterizes selfish children? And how can parents strengthen a shy child so that he does not fail? A conversation with psychologist Stefanie Rietzler.

If you divide children into two drawers, there seem to be the selfish children who usually think only of themselves – and on the other hand the considerate children who often hold back and are not always concerned with their own benefit (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’re being honest, Pippi is social, but also a bit selfish and likes to be in charge. 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-mannered girl who follows rules and puts her own needs second – in contrast to the wayward Pippilotta.

But how much selfishness is actually healthy? And when does it become too much? We have that with you Psychologist and author Stefanie Rietzler spoken. Among other things, she has written two books on self-esteem and self-confidence (For parents: “Secure, courageous, 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 cautious about such assessments?

Stephanie Rietzler: Especially with children we should be careful with such attributions. Because young children are unable to empathize with their fellow humans, put their needs aside, and understand how their behavior affects others.

When are children able to empathize with their fellow humans?

Most children are not able to empathize with others and take their perspective until they are about four to six years old—and only to a certain extent.

Many parents probably don’t even know…

No, and they get similarly frustrated when the toddler acts in an allegedly reckless manner: “He wants to bang his head through the wall!”, “You can’t just rip your brother’s toys away, you have to be able to share them. too!” When we label children’s normal behavior as selfish, we do them an injustice. Children can only act truly selfishly from school age if they deliberately gain benefits at the expense of others.

But not all kids do that, right?

Like the rest 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 in order to thrive. Related to 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 wants and needs aside. Here there is a risk that they will fall short, be taken advantage of by friends and classmates and not reach their goals.

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

When accompanied, these children must be allowed to discover: Is it still give and take, or am I being taken advantage of? 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 shouldn’t 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 other people’s demands and expectations 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 untouchable. They enjoy being courted by others and being able to set the tone in the group. They decide what is played, who can join and rarely have to put their wishes aside. While some parents see this with concern, others are proud that their child seems so independent and doesn’t 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 handle frustration if, contrary to expectations, they cannot assert themselves. And as soon as cooperation is required, conflict is inevitable. Other group members feel bossed 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 wishes that you can express, and they are taken into account. All other people also have needs and wishes and want to be taken into account them. We as a family are looking for solutions, so that’s true for everyone.”

And it also affects children how their caregivers deal with third parties.

“Do mom and dad take care of others too? Can my parents treat others and celebrate success with them? Or do they get jealous quickly and think they are missing out?”

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 useful 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 themselves” or “not listen to what other people think of them.” Reticent children in particular 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 it better?

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

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

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


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