The Moral Equivalent of Oxygen

Past or present, old-fashioned or “progressive,” most parents still agree on one thing: Teach your child not to be selfish.

If you ask me, this is the single biggest mistake a parent can make. Telling a child not to be selfish does to the mind, to self-esteem and character, what teaching them “Don’t breathe” or “Never eat” would to the body.

If you relentlessly kept a child from eating and tried to make him or her look at food as (at best) a necessary evil, you’d end up with a half-starved anorexic/bulimic — or a rebellious, overweight eating compulsive.

Most parents don’t make such a mistake. Most parents, in fact, do everything they can to make sure their child can eat, and in today’s society most actually overfeed their children.

When you tell a child to be selfless, to always place him- or herself last, you end up with the emotional/psychological equivalent of a half-starved anorexic, or eating compulsive.

Social observers and therapists wonder: Why do so many kids end up inconsiderate brats? It’s the equivalent of the overeaters who rebel against starving. Their narcissism (self at the expense of others having a self) is nothing more than an angry, mindless rebellion against what they never should have been taught.

Instead of telling children they shouldn’t be selfish, parents should use logic and reason, as well as consequences.

Instead of saying, “You must share your toys with Joey”, regardless of who Joey is or whether he asks politely or savagely demands those toys, it’s best to ask your child questions. “Who’s Joey? What’s he like? Why does he want your toys? Can you trust him? Do you want to share these toys?”

When children react or behave irrationally, they should be held responsible for their actions, of course. But they should never be told they’re selfish. Instead, it should be argued, “You see? You defeated yourself by doing that dumb thing.”

Whatever you do, you should never tell your child he must share merely because someone else — even a sibling — demands something merely for the sake of demand. It’s a very bad emotional precedent. It leads to things you might not consider.

It leads to your child, years later as a married adult, demanding that his spouse give up a career or something else important — for his sake, and on the premise of, “It’s wrong to be selfish.” Or, on the same premise, it leads your married adult child to give up something important because of a spousal demand. Or any dictator’s demand.

When you teach your child not to be selfish, you teach him that life consists of either: eat or be eaten. Sacrifice or be sacrificed. Because you had better believe that in a world where half or more of the people are willing to be eaten, there will be more than enough people (not just common criminals, either) willing to eat them.

It leads your grown child, years later, to become either the victim or the perpetrator of the idea that while it’s OK for one person to insist that another “not be selfish,” it’s OK for the person making that demand — by the very act of making that demand — to be selfish him- or herself.

If you ask me, the greatest scam of human history is the one that billions of human beings — in the form of countless religions, social formulas and other ideologies — have been convinced (starting in childhood, usually) to foist upon themselves. This scam is the vicious lie that it’s possible — indeed, morally laudable — to deny oneself the moral and psychological equivalent of oxygen.


Be sure to “friend” Dr. Hurd on Facebook. Search under “Michael Hurd” (Rehoboth Beach DE). Get up-to-the-minute postings, recommended articles and links, and engage in back-and-forth discussion with Dr. Hurd on topics of interest.