Empathy and "benevolent selfishness" are two intertwined traits that make up the heart of self-directed children — those who rely on their own inner voices rather than outside influences.
For self-directed children to make the right choices concerning those around them rather than make choices tainted by their need for approval and acceptance, they must develop a strong sense of empathy for other people.
Selfishness, as conventionally defined, is "concern primarily with one's own interests." Sounds rotten, doesn't it? True selfishness, however, is actually a wonderful trait, because honoring those self-interests requires being moral. For instance, if I were to donate $3000 to a local charity, because I sincerely want to help, my motives would be "good-selfish." After all, my generosity would make me feel good inside. But if I made the donation so members of the community would respect me more, my motives would be "bad-selfish." This is nothing more than greed. Will I feel good about it inside? Nope. Will people really respect me more? Doubt it. Have I avoided tarnishing my character? Absolutely not.
When self-directed children have a high sense of empathy, they examine the misfortunes of another until they develop a deeper understanding for that person's situation. Once they've done this, they will respond through "benevolent selfishness." Let's say Sammy pushes his way to the front of the water fountain line after recess. If a self-directed child was one of those pushed aside, she might think, "I know where this is going. Everyone in line is going to get mad and pick on him. I know how I would feel if my friends picked on me." (Empathy.) "I can't let Sammy go through that. I'd feel like I let him down. I'm going to take him aside and talk to him. If he loses friends, I'd feel bad about myself all day long." (Benevolent selfishness.) You see how protecting her own feelings benefits everyone in that situation? Here are eight suggestions for helping children develop empathy and benevolent selfishness.
1. Teaching Children How it Works
Teach kids to follow the motto, "If it feels wrong inside, it's good for no one." This helps them keep their motives sincere and pure. We can help them understand this distinction better by talking about the "selfish" acts we engage in, what motivates us to do them, how these acts do not harm others, and how the benefits to ourselves spread to those around us. We can also help them analyze the motives behind their own acts towards others. Do these motives allow them to keep their morals intact? Are their actions truly good for them in the long run? Do their actions help, rather than harm others? Could any ulterior motives be involved that make their acts less angelic than they appear?