Are Children Truly Selfish?

Many people, especially Christians, think that young children’s incapability to always share or to not be able to put themselves in other’s shoes or to need what they need is selfishness. They think this is children’s “flesh” and “sinful nature” taking over. It is not sin or selfishness at all.

It’s a developmental stage that young children go through. Only much older children and adults are truly able to be selfish. We have impulse control. We should have empathy. Children don’t. They’re learning.

Infants and toddlers are very aware of their parents’ emotions from birth and are affected by them, but this does not mean that infants and toddlers can empathize with the parents.
Young children from birth until somewhere around the age of four or five years are what Jean Piaget calls egocentric. Again, this is not due to their “sinful nature” and it does not mean that young children are evil. God designed children exactly how they are. There’s a reason He made young children egocentric, probably for survival in this harsh, sinful world.

As we teach children empathy by modeling it to them as well as pointing out how their behaviors–both positive and negative–affect others, children begin to learn how to be empathetic.  We need to teach them how to be gentle and respectful to others by being gentle and respectful to them.

Punishing them will always hinder their learning of selflessness.

Unfortunately, parents who use fear and punishment to make their children obey them are actually teaching their children to be selfish as the child is not thinking about doing something for another person but rather protecting him/herself from punishment. We should not be teaching our children to only do things to avoid punishment, as the Bible says, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves” (Philippians 2:3).


I’ve dealt with many pro-spankers, and the way some of them dismiss the painful experiences a great deal of people have had with being hit by their parents is selfish.  The way pro-spankers automatically assume that their children will “survive” just because they feel they did is selfish.

In essence, spanking/hitting makes many selfish because it leads to worldly sorrow and a sense of self preservation instead of godly sorrow.

So, what is godly sorrow and worldly sorrow?

In 2 Corinthians 7:8-11, it states:

“Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it—I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while—yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. At every point you have proved yourselves to be innocent in this matter.”

What the Apostle Paul is saying here is that godly sorrow makes us think beyond ourselves to how our actions have hurt or affected other people and our relationship with God. We look past whatever consequences our actions caused us and want to do everything in our power to repent and seek forgiveness from God and the person we have hurt. This is why Paul says that godly sorrow brings life as we seek to be forgiven.

On the other hand, worldly sorrow brings death according to what Paul says in this verse. Due to fear of punishment as well as guilt, people of all ages will focus on the consequences that are happening to them because of their actions rather than how they’ve hurt God and the other person. This is worldly sorrow. Being afraid of punishment and rejection causes worldly sorrow. Also, feeling so guilty and bad about oneself that one feels that he/she deserves whatever punishment he/she has coming to him/her leads to worldly sorrow.

We need to do our best to use discipline instead of punishment so that our children don’t become selfish people who believe that it is perfectly acceptable to inflict pain on others.

No, young children are not selfish, but we sure can be!


Are Young Children Capable of Manipulating Us?

A parent asked me if young children are capable of manipulating us.  And if a toddler really thinks that by having a tantrum, he/she can break the parent’s will.

This is such a good question. Sadly, many people, especially Christians, think children are very manipulative from birth on. The fact is infants 12 months and younger absolutely do not have the brain capability to manipulate us. As children get older, they can’t actually plan on manipulating us. It just happens in the moment.  It takes abstract cognitive ability to scheme against us; something children cannot do until adolescence.

No, toddlers are not thinking, “Hmmm…If I throw a fit, Mommy will let me have a cookie.” Rather, it’s when they want a cookie and we say “After supper” that they may get upset and have a meltdown. If we give in to their meltdown, they’ll repeat a meltdown because it worked. But, toddlers are so in the moment that they’re not able to sit and plan a way to get us to do what they want.  And yes, they may want extra cuddles, more books read, and another drink of water at bedtime because they’re not quite ready to separate from us even if we co-sleep.  Very young children just love being with us.

It is very important for us to realize that the way we view children is how they will behave. Many Christians seem to view children as “sinners” and “manipulative.” For example, James Dobson calls children horrible degrading names in his books. This sets up an adversarial parent-child relationship. Yet, God calls children blessings in Psalm 127:3. I view children as little people in need of help, guidance, and discipline (teaching). When the focus is on cooperation instead of control, children cooperate. I’ve worked with some pretty difficult children and was able to get them to cooperate through positive discipline strategies such as modeling, child-proofing, validating feelings, fulfilling the child’s physical and emotional needs, setting realistic limits and boundaries, helping children comply, giving choices, and using natural and logical consequences with children. Children do better when we view them as God does.

Young school-aged children may have a bit more planning ability, but they tend to still be in the moment. They might ask Mom over Dad because Mom tends to be more agreeable, but I don’t believe they are capable of planning much in the future to manipulate.

I remember when I was in 3rd or 4th grade, I was all ready for school and my mom wheeled me out to the school bus.  Only there was a substitute bus driver who treated me like I was mentally disabled.  Well, I guess I was in no mood to deal with her that morning because I started crying and told my mom that my stomach hurt.  I got to stay home from school that day. It was totally unplanned by me.

Therefore, I’d say that it isn’t until between the ages of 10-12 that children actually set out to manipulate, lie, or sneak around unless they are punitively parented. Then, they do whatever it takes to stay out of trouble. Of course, every child is different.  Respectful parenting makes it less likely that our children will set out to manipulate us when they are truly capable of doing so.