How to Fix a Spoiled Attitude in Four Steps

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by Dr. Michele Borba

Nobody wins when our kids have spoiled attitudes. Research shows our children are born with the marvelous gift to care and be concerned about others. But unless we nurture those virtues they will lie dormant. So let’s roll up our sleeves to squelch this obnoxious bad attitude, and make sure our kids have the virtues of selflessness, generosity and consideration.

Censor Selfishness

A major step in squelching kids’ selfish attitudes is simply not tolerating it. You’re right: it won’t be easy. But if you really are serious about changing this attitude, you must stand firm and be consistent. Start by clearly laying down your new attitude expectations: “In this house you are always to be considerate of others.” Then loudly state your disapproval each and every time your child acts selfishly. Be sure to state why their behavior was wrong, and if the selfish attitude continues, consider applying consequences.

“That was a selfish thing to do: I expect you to treat your friends the same way you’d want to be treated.”

“I’m very concerned when I see you hiding that ball, and not sharing with your friends. You may not treat people selfishly.”

Nurture Empathy to Decrease Selfishness

Empathetic kids can understand where other people are coming from because they put themselves in their shoes and feel how they feel. This way, they are more generous, unselfish and caring. So nurture your child’s empathy to help him see beyond himself, and into the views of others. Here are three ways to do so.

Point out other’s emotions. Pointing out the facial expressions, posture and mannerisms of people in different emotional states, as well as their predicaments helps kids tune into other people’s feelings. As occasions arise, explain your concern and what clues helped you make your feeling assessment: “Did you notice Kelly’s face when you were playing today?  I was concerned because she seemed worried about something. Maybe you should talk to her to see if she’s okay.”

Imagine someone’s feelings. Help your kid imagine how the other person feels about a special situation. “Imagine you’re a new student and you’re walking into a brand new school and don’t know anyone. How might you feel?” Look for daily situations that could nurture empathy. Then pose questions using that situation to help guide your child to consider how the person feels. Asking often, “How would you feel?” (not when you’re disciplining – just day to day slices of life you observe) helps kids understand the feelings and needs of other people.

Set Limits

One reason kids become selfish is because they’re used to getting their way. So don’t: Set clear limits and then stick to them like glue. Don’t give in to whining, pouting, tantrums and guilt-laced admonishments of “You’re the worst parent in the world!” This might be hard if you think your main role is to be your kid’s best friend. Reset your thinking. See yourself as the adult, and recognize that hundreds of child development studies conclude that kids whose parents set clear behavior expectations turned out less selfish kids.

You may have to have a serious talk with other caregivers in your kids’ life who are guilty of overindulging. Let such individuals know in no uncertain terms you are serious about turning your kid’s selfish attitude around and must have their cooperation to do so.

Reinforce Selfless Acts

Of course, one of the fastest way to increase selflessness is by “catching” your kid doing considerate and unselfish acts. Always remember to describe the deed so she clearly understands the virtue and point out the impact it had on the recipient.  Doing so will also help her be more likely to repeat the same generous deed another time.

“Did you see Kelly’s smile when you shared your toys? That made her happy.”

“Thanks for taking time to ask me how my day went.”

The Mother Company aims to support parents and their children, providing thought-provoking web content and products based in social and emotional learning for children ages 3-6. Check out episodes of our “Ruby’s Studio”  along with our beautiful children’s booksmusic, and more.


This article was originally published July 11, 2013

Posted in: Behavioral Issues, Expert Advice, Discipline, Modern Parenting