I was listening to a story on the radio this morning about the ongoing federal budget crisis.  According to the interviewee, most Americans want a balanced budget.  However, the Americans polled also said, “But don’t touch my entitlements” – 60% of the budget, and “Don’t touch the defense” – 20% of the budget.  They also said, “And don’t mess with revenue.”  However, “You can cut foreign aid” – less than 1% of the federal budget.

Wow!  Americans sound like my children: “Give me everything I want, but don’t make me work for it or give up anything I’m already getting.  Oh, but it’s okay to cut back on what you give my siblings, dad and yourself.”  As most parents know, this math doesn’t add up.  But if adult Americans are just grown-up versions of the selfish children that live with me, is there anything I can do now to help transform them into more charitable people before they become the new adult Americans?

As I thought about this some more, I realized that I was not a child who needed to be transformed from selfish to accommodating.  I didn’t ask my parents for stuff I thought they couldn’t afford.  It was in my “nature” to be a caretaker of others.

What about my own children?  Take the three teenagers as examples.  My 13-year-old and I were shopping for sneakers last night, but none of the ones we saw were good enough for her.  She wanted an expensive brand she designed online or $100+ running shoes she had seen advertised on TV.  Now, Skye doesn’t run.  She mucks around in a chicken coop and plants flowers and vegetables.

In the course of our trip, Skye made a list of things she wanted – a better phone, the new iPad, designer clothes, etc.  I asked her how she thought I was going to get the money to grant her wishes.  Her answer: “You are rich.  You could buy this stuff.  My friends have these things.”  I tried a rational approach at first.  I talked about financial priorities in our family and larger social needs, but I witnessed her eyes glaze over.  Finally, out of frustration, I said, “We are in a huge, expensive house with another house we can’t sell, and that limits our ability to buy other things.  Further, we got into this mess, in part, because you would not share a room with your sister.  You moved into the hall.  Since you couldn’t stay there forever, we started playing musical chairs with the bedrooms in our old house to try to find a configuration that worked.  We couldn’t, so we bought a bigger house.”

Skye responded, “I would have been fine living in the hall.”  In other words – “You did this to yourself.  The fact that I can’t have all the stuff I want is due to stupid choices you and Daddy made.”

I tried yet another approach: “It hurts my feelings that you ask over and over again for things we can’t give you.” Skye replied, “I know you won’t give them to me, but that doesn’t mean I can’t keep asking.”

Ah-ha!  Maybe that is the problem with Americans.  We keep asking for stuff that benefits us to the detriment of others, but we really do know we can’t have it all.  If that is the case, then politicians need to be mindful of this dynamic and make the hard choices for us anyway.  Political suicide? Perhaps.  But if Americans are like my daughter, then it’s what our leaders have to do.

My 14-year-old son represents a different form of self-centeredness.  He believes he is the persecuted one, the one of the five siblings who is treated unfairly, the one with the most restrictions.  He doesn’t take into account his history of lying or sneaking around to get what he wants, even when it puts him in danger.  He doesn’t factor in that his authority figures are trying to protect him from his own bad judgment.  And he is only sorry when he gets caught.  As he put it: “Being honest has never gotten me anything.”  This sort of American feels entitled because he lacks an understanding of or appreciation for the big picture.  He or she is uneducated.  As K.J.’s parents, we put in safeguards and we talk – more than he wants to listen – about our reasons for making restrictions and our concern for his well being, about the needs of the rest of the family, the community, the world.  We hope each day that it is making some difference, but only time will tell.  Perhaps politicians would do well to continue to remind us of the reasons for our sacrifices – the good that will come from them.

Then there is my oldest daughter who, like me, wants to do good.  She chooses service and mission projects over fancy clothes or gadgets.  She doesn’t ask for expensive items when less expensive ones will accomplish the goal.  She exercises regularly even though she will never be an Olympic swimmer because she knows it is good for her health.  This is what we thought we were teaching all the children, but she is the one who seems to have absorbed the lessons.  As I write, she is in Honduras for her spring break, building homes and latrines and teaching bible school.

On the other hand, maybe she is capable of giving to those less fortunate or of not being the “winner” in every contest because she is the oldest sibling in her family (as I was in my family of origin).  Her authoritative position and security is never threatened.  She’s “rich enough” to give without fearing that she will suffer in return.  Is that why some Americans are givers and others are takers?

I’ve heard it said that what happens to us in childhood determines the kind of adults we will be.  If we are loved, secure, well fed, and suffer no serious trauma, we ought to become giving and empathetic adults. And even those who don’t have the best childhoods can overcome the negatives with the right support.  But, I’m not convinced.  There is a big part of me that says it’s about hard wiring whether you are young or old.  What do you think?

2 thoughts on “Selfishness

  1. From my experience with two children, I would guess it’s largely hard wired. It varies according to the age of the child, of course, but I’m not sure even the best parents with the best and most consistent intentions can transform a child who isn’t inclined to be gracious and generous with those less fortunate.

  2. I agree with you – I think it is hard-wired for the most part, but I do think that the values that are taught in the home make a difference at the edges. I have two very different sons; in my case the younger one has the “selflessness” gene. However, the core values do show occasionally in the older one as well (boys are late 20s/early 30s), particularly as he begins to raise his own son. Thanks for another great post, Rebecca!

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