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Dear Family Whisperer: My Son Is Selfish!

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ANGRY TODDLER
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How do you get an egocentric 3 ½ year old to engage with the concept of family? At the moment it's ALL about him. If, for example, DH [dear husband] or I are trying to do write the weekly food shopping list and DS [dear son] wants to do something else, he repeatedly whines at us,"But I want to do X." I know we should be getting him to help out, but there are only a few things he'll help with and other things he absolutely won't! He is pretty stubborn (his preschool teacher say this too) and only likes to do what he likes to do. He does fully understand about helping, he's great at sharing and has good empathy, so I'm sure he can "get it," but we're at a loss about how to do it!

-Mother of a "King Baby"

Dear Mother of a "King Baby,"

My colleague, the late Tracy Hogg, warned new parents not to allow their infant to become "King Baby." Young children see the world through me-me-me eyes and yours already seems savvy about getting his way. He feels eclipsed by a shopping list because it's not about him.

But we shouldn't fault his age or personality or even how you've parented him. Self-centeredness is part of the human condition. We adults aren't necessarily less inclined to unleash our "egocentric tendencies." We are simply more efficient than children at correcting our self-centeredness.

Learning to rein in your "I" is a life-long process. Your 3 ½-year-old doesn't even know he's being self-centered! But you're right: He can "get it," especially if you "engage with the concept of family" and work on being less egotistical together.

Be explicit. When you hold your own "I" in check, help him notice: "Waiting on this line is so annoying. I feel like yelling at the lady behind the counter, but she's doing her best. Besides, I'm not the only one who has to wait."

Also note when others act selflessly: "Even though he is running late, Daddy is taking time to help Mrs. Green with her car. That makes him feel good, too." DS (dear son) will learn valuable lessons this way: Sometimes, we have to wait. It's OK to feel frustrated, angry or to want your way, but not to take it out on someone else. Doing for others feels good.

When your son witnesses respectful conversations between you and your partner, it also teaches him how to be part of a "We." Simple exchanges, like "Sorry I forgot," or "Thanks for taking my clothes to the dry cleaner," speak volumes about how We act in this family -- ask politely; consider others' needs; pitch in.

Your son definitely "understands about helping." At school, he has to ask permission, say "please" and "thank you," wait his turn, share and clean up his own mess. His teachers expect him to cooperate and to respect his classmates' feelings. Granted, most kids are better at "perspective-taking" with peers. Still, DS is also capable of being a good citizen at home -- if you truly include him.

The next time you make a grocery list, sit down as a family and engage DS in the bigger issue, "What will we eat this week?" He can't write or drive to the store or lug a 25-pound bag of dog food, but he's certainly capable of being part of the team. And if you're worried about spending the extra few minutes to include him, factor in the time it takes to deal with his interruptions!

Step aside when he wants to help -- within reason, let him do it his way. Also create opportunities for him to expand his repertoire: Buy a small rake. Let him wash vegetables. When shopping, pack a few bags with lighter items, and casually hand them to him when unloading the car.

Some days, he won't cooperate at all -- he's barely 4. Just be consistent. If he complains or has a tantrum, walk away. If he whines, don't listen ("I can't understand you unless you use your regular voice"). If he demands, make him wait ("I'm fixing this light right now, but I'll get you that snack in three minutes").

Remember, too, that it's never just about his behavior. After a hard day, it's more challenging to quell your own "do it my way" voice, too. But if you pick your moments, reining in the "I" will eventually become easier for all of you.


Have a family question for Melinda Blau? Tweet #DearFamilyWhisperer or email us at DearFamilyWhisperer@familywhispering.com. Check back next week to see if your question is featured here and on the Huffington Post! Real names will not be used, no topics off limits. Adults and children welcome. These columns are brief. You'll find more in FAMILY WHISPERING, co authored by Melinda and (the late) Tracy Hogg. Also check out the website: FamilyWhispering.com and follow @MelindaBlau.