Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel Ackerman, LMHC
You don't want your child to be selfish. You want him to be concerned about other people. You want him to share his toys and take turns during games. You want him to help others when asked and sometimes offer his time and energy on behalf of others on his own, unsolicited. You teach him the importance of cooperation and how wonderful it is to go beyond cooperation to selflessness, to "be m'vatair," let someone else have it, let someone else win.
How wonderful is it to go beyond cooperation? How often is it appropriate for your child to let someone else win, when for your child it means he has to lose? When cooperation leads to compromise everyone accepts a new version of victory; everyone wins and no one loses. Neither party gets what they originally wanted. Both parties choose to accept something for each of them rather selfishly insisting on all for one and nothing for the other. But neither of them chooses to be selfless.
Is it really cooperation when one person gives in to the other? Yes or no? Or do we use the word cooperation when we really mean compliance or submission? Yes or no? These are yes or no questions that prevent us from finding the most accurate answer. Here's a better version of the question:
When is compliance or submission a form of cooperation? Answer: when someone chooses to be selfless.
As a parent, you teach your child about cooperation, compliance, selfishness, and selflessness. I deliberately included selfishness in that list in order to show you the contrast with selflessness. If it is sometimes appropriate for your child to be selfless, when is it appropriate for her to be selfish? If it is never appropriate for your child to be selfish, what is the alternative to selflessness?
To answer those questions, I would like to offer a bilingual play on the word "selfish." I offer you the concept of a Self Ish, a person who is conscious of three concerns: his responsibilities to himself, to Hashem, and to others. The Tiferes Yisrael (Avos 1:2) describes these three as the tachlis briyas ha'adam, the purpose for which we were created.
A Self Ish is never selfish out of malice or neglect. He sometimes chooses himself over someone else when compromise is unreachable. When he acts selflessly, it is not because he has lost his sense of self. He sometimes accepts the desires and demands of others, even at his own expense, because he has chosen to, not because he thinks he has no choice.
Think about the alternative. When you teach your child that she has no choice, and she believes you, she will submit and comply. If she's content with doing what she's told to do, she'll be fine as long as the people who are telling her what to do are acting in her best interest. What happens when she's told to do something that is not in her best interest? How will she even know what's not in her best interest if she's never been introduced to the idea that her best interest, her self, matters?
And when she complies because she been taught that she has to, and she's not content, how will she express her resentment, at whom, and for how long?
Here's how Mordechai expressed his.
Every time it gets close to Yom Tov, our kids ask us if we can just stay home because I'm always so grumpy when we go to my in-laws.
It sounds like a reasonable question, Mordechai. What's the answer?
I tell them that their mother will be very disappointed if we don't go to her parents, and that her parents expect us to come, so I don't have any choice in the matter. I don't like it, but we go anyway.
So you're not happy about going there. And once you get there you're grumpy; for how long?
Well, the kids describe it as grumpy. It's really that I don't want to be there so I guess I'm unhappy about it until we finally get to leave. How long? From erev Yom Kippur until after Simchas Torah. Long enough, don't you think?
What does your wife think, Mordechai? What does she think of perhaps spending only part of the time with your in-laws and part of the time somewhere else?
I've never asked her that. I don't think she wants to divide the time.
Are you sure that she wouldn't be willing to divide the time so you would be more comfortable with the situation? From what you're describing to me, your children might be happier with the situation too if you were less uncomfortable. They already told you that they'd rather stay home the whole time!
Mordechai is resentful and miserable, and everyone else's Yom Tov suffers along with him. All of this is the result of Mordechai's selflessness. He is giving to others despite himself, not from himself. He didn't give selflessly. He rendered himself selfless by discounting his own preferences and then blamed others for it. The resentment followed.
Mordechai can become a Self Ish. He can come to understand the difference between deciding to give even when it hurts versus letting people take because he's afraid to disappoint them. He can learn to choose when to be selfless, to give in to others at his own expense. Over time, I truly believe he will cultivate a far more comfortable relationship with himself, his wife, his children, and his in-laws.
How comfortable are you with teaching your child to be a Self Ish, to weigh her wants and feelings when measuring her response to requests from others? Do you think what I told Mordechai only applies to adults?
When I said it to him, he told me he understands and agrees with what I suggested. He added that it is very hard for him to imagine doing it. Because he learned as a child that you give others what they want. Now he feels guilty at the very idea of asserting himself if it means someone else won't be happy, or even less happy than they are when he says yes to everything they want.
That didn't surprise me. Hillel taught us that we need to think about ourselves as well as thinking about others, and then he said, "If not now, when?" The Rambam explains that if you don't acquire these traits when you are young, it will be very difficult to change and adopt them when you are older. He finds an allusion to this in the words of Mishlei, chanoch l'naar al pi darko, implying that the derech, the traits, for better or worse, that you instill in your child will stay with him and be difficult for him to change. Mordechai is finding it difficult. And he is changing.
Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel Ackerman is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor with specialties in marriage, relationships, and parenting. He works with parents and educators, and conducts parenting groups for men and women. He can be reached at 718-344-6575.