THE BLOG

Is It Too Late to Change My Boys?

08/04/2014 01:03 pm ET | Updated Oct 04, 2014
  • Susan Stiffelman Family therapist, Author, Parenting With Presence, Parenting Without Power Struggles
Compassionate Eye Foundation/Justin Pumfrey via Getty Images

I know this sounds mean to say about my own kids, but my boys, who are 13 and 15, are very selfish. They never want to help out around the house, expect me to drive them to their friend's houses as soon as they ask and complain if I want them to spend time with their littler brother. Is there a way to raise unselfish children? Is it too late for me?

I don't believe it's ever too late for much of anything when it comes to raising children. Still, old habits die hard; especially when the person in question doesn't want to change. Here are some thoughts for generating more selflessness in your sons:

• Avoid judging. While I wholeheartedly support your effort to awaken your sons to the pleasures of giving, you won't make much progress if you criticize, scold or shame them when they don't feel like it. In all of my online courses I focus on helping parents come alongside their kids, rather than at them, even when it initially feels awkward. "I know that it's not as much fun to play video games with your little brother. I'm sure it's hard to put up with his goofy comments. I get it, honey." Letting your boys know that you can understand their resistance to your requests will make them more open to complying with them.

• Consider their point of view. If you have catered to your children's every whim since they were small, then it makes perfect sense that they would expect you to carry on doing the same. We teach people how to treat us, and children are no exception. If you used to hop-to whenever one of your sons wanted a ride, then of course they would be upset if you no longer want to.

• Volunteer. The quickest way to inspire a youngster to see how fortunate they are is to provide them with the chance to help those who are dealing with difficult circumstances. I know it's not always easy to convince kids to volunteer, but as you make giving back something your family does regularly, it will become easier. You may find it better to let your boys do things without you; kids often show up with more gusto when mom or dad aren't around.

• Connect them with a mentor. If you were raising your boys in a tribe -- which until relatively recently in our history you would have been doing -- your sons would be out with other men learning how to hunt, build and track. Young men need to be influenced by their peers, in positive ways. Look for opportunities for your sons to spend time with someone who can mentor your sons -- whether in academics, sports, science music or the arts.

• Endure the discomfort of not being liked. Sit down with your sons and beging by talking about what you appreciate or admire about each one of them to set a positive tone. Choose one thing you want to work on this week -- perhaps helping out around the house -- and let them know what you expect. Be kind, and acknowledge that you understand that they don't think it's fair that they be asked to pitch in. Don't argue or negotiate to get them to agree with you or see how valuable this will be in building character. The clearer you are, the more likely they will make peace with the new plan.

• Be realistic. Kids are egocentric. While there are some children who seem to be born with a strong Mother Theresa gene, most tend to focus on doing what they want as much as possible. Don't expect them to whistle while they work, or cheerfully bundle up their little brother for a game of catch. Acknowledge their effort to be helpful, however half-hearted, without making a big fuss about it. Over time, the reward of their brother's smile or the relief on your face when you walk into a room they've swept will help them discover the joy of giving back.