Mine. As a parent, you’ve heard this more than once. My toy. My fruit snacks. My blanket. From the very start of life, selfishness is inherent.

I hope you feel some level of comfort knowing that “me first” thinking is normal. My children are just as rotten as yours sometimes. However, the real concern for us parents sets in when we realize that some children never grow out of it. Selfish children can become selfish adolescents and eventually selfish adults. We don’t just outgrow selfishness as we get older, we must be led into something better.

Today, we are going to discuss a few ways you can lead your children out of selfishness and into service of others. 


1. Compliance isn’t the goal. Heart-change is.

“You need to share your toys.” “You can’t talk to your teacher that way.” “Apologize to your mother.”

When we tell our children things like this, we are only asking for compliance. We want and expect our children to behave in a certain way. There is nothing wrong with raising well-mannered humans. However, changed behavior doesn’t result in a changed heart. Without a changed heart, bad behavior is just put on hold until authority is absent or opportunity presents itself. That is why our goal must always be heart-change, not merely behavior modification.

I’m sure this concept isn’t new to you. However, knowing the path to shaping your child’s heart might be.

One path I’m discovering is modeling an empathetic heart through asking empathetic questions. You want your child to share their toys so they have a generous heart, right? A toddler sharing a toy, a child not talking back, a teenager being respectful to someone they are dating—all of these are ultimately heart issues. You see the character forming within your child through their behavior—but their behavior has deeper roots. 

We want more for our children than simple behavior management. We want them to want to do the right things. When you see your child displaying behavior you don’t approve of, begin to ask yourself, what does this reveal about their heart? What fruit of the Spirit are they not demonstrating? What questions can I ask to lead them in the truth, rather than just demand their compliance? 

For example, your daughter is crying because your son took her toy. Instead of demanding that he shares, say something like, “Buddy, what do you think would make your sister happy? Would you like to make her happy?” Help your child see that his actions affect the joy or sadness of others and he has the power to bring joy to others. The behavior that follows is simply a byproduct of the character being formed. Jesus said it best, “For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of” (Luke 6:45, NIV). What we say and do is a result of what’s going on within us. The best way to help your child take their eyes off of themselves is to help them begin to focus on others.

2. Model and celebrate putting others first.

It feels good to be first. From the preschool line leader to the president of a company, being first feels important. And everyone wants to feel important. However, Jesus made it clear that if you want to be great, you’ll serve others. Even putting the needs of others before your own. As Jesus told his disciples, “But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:26b-28).

One tangible way to help your children focus on others is to model it for them. Hold open the door for someone and have your child help you. Work to teach your children that real importance and real greatness are found in serving others.

Celebrate your child when you see them do something selfless. And be specific in your affirmation of them. The key is to celebrate the importance of what they did and show them that you noticed. I mean, who doesn’t want to be noticed and valued? For example, “Honey, I just wanted to let you know that I noticed when you were speaking to your friend, that you asked her a lot of great questions. I promise I wasn’t eavesdropping, but I just noticed that you were a really great friend to her and you listened well. I’m sure that meant a lot to her. I love the young woman you are becoming.”

In a world that models and celebrates me first, do your part to model and celebrate loving and putting others first.

3. Teach empathy by asking questions. 

One of the most frustrating things in life is not feeling heard. You know what I’m talking about. You go out for coffee with a friend, and by the end, you can count on one hand how many questions they asked you. Most of which just led them back to talking more about their experiences, their hardships, their joys, themselves. Or you speak with your boss, and you wonder if she was even listening or just wanting to tell you what she thinks you should do.

We live in a culture full of speaking experts and listening novices. We want to talk about ourselves because that’s how we’ve learned to feel important and how to relate to others.

Think about how we speak to our children when they come home from school. How was your day? What did you do? How was the test? Do you have homework? What are you doing this weekend? We might be modeling great questions to ask, but we put all the focus on them. It’s all about our children. So our children learn how to share, but not how to listen or even that they should. 

Instead, begin to ask your children questions that focus on those they interact with. How was Owen’s day? What’s Owen’s favorite color? Was there anyone in your class who was sad today? How could you be a good friend to them tomorrow? Whether your child is in preschool or high school, help them see and hear those around them. Ask questions that will cause them to see others’ desires, preferences, dreams, fears, good days, and bad days. Next, help your child see opportunities to impact the life of another. Finally, celebrate like crazy when they take action to love others well. 

This is the second in our short series on helping our kids outgrow “me first” thinking. For more about why it’s so important to help your kids serve others, check out this post from Howard Graham.

Josh Pezold is the Outreach Minister at Traders Point Christian Church in Indiana and founder of Young Church Leaders. He is husband to Katie, dad to Emerson and Nailah, and a foster parent. Josh is passionate about investing in young leaders and enjoys grilling on his Big Green Egg whenever he has the chance.