8 Benefits of Self-ish Parenting

(Scroll down for Q&A and a story)

Happy familySelfish is a dirty word. To most of us it means lacking consideration for others and looking out for one’s personal gain only. To be a selfish parent goes against every fiber of our being. Many know what it’s like to live with a narcissistic parent who never takes responsibility for herself and turns every fault into someone else’s problem.

But the word “self” refers to one’s essential being, nature or personality. I want to focus on this type of self-ishness. Nurturing your essential being is paramount to becoming not only an effective parent but also one who finds fulfillment and joy in the job as opposed to the exhaustion and frustration of a heavy burden.

Nurturing your essential being requires a certain amount of self-confidence and the knowledge that your essential being is as important as your child’s. Unfortunately most of us (especially women) were brought up being taught that others are more important and that caring for oneself is selfish. As well, most of us brought up under the reward and punishment method learned that our behavior and achievements are far more important than we are, or than the emotions beneath our behavior. So therefore we come to parenting with a self-confidence deficit—we’re never quite good enough.

Being self-ish means being able to say, “This is not okay with me.” It means setting a limit not primarily because it is in the best interest of your child, but because it actually does not work for you. It means understanding that your child is equally invested in what he wants, so problem solving is needed for both to work it through to a solution. Taking away a phone to get what you want is so much easier.

Healthy parenting requires teamwork. Teamwork requires cooperation, doing something for another member of the team, not only because they will do something for you in return, and not because you will get a reward if you do or a punishment if you don’t, but because it feels right to do so. That means being heard when you say that something does not feel right—“It does not feel right to me when you talk to me like that.” And listening when your child says the same to you.

Being self-ish means being honest about your feelings, your mistakes, your desires and taking responsibility by saying what you want your child to do, rather than what he needs to do.

Resentment, disrespect and feeling unappreciated run strong with many parents. These are parents who give and give and give believing it is their job to take responsibility for everything their child does, says, and feels. The giving is fruitless, the burden is impossible to lift, and feelings of failure seep in when the problem does not go away. The giving is not appreciated and often stands in the way of the child’s most important learning.

When you are feeling overburdened, can you say “no” to yet another activity your child demands? Can you decide not to buy another trending toy or video game without the excuse that you don’t have the money. Can you say no and allow with empathy the meltdown that may follow?

It takes self-ishness to allow your child to experience the natural consequences of her behavior; to let her feel disappointed, sad, despairing, angry or hopeless without rushing in to try to fix it but instead simply offering your understanding and support (advice and help only when it is asked for) with the confidence that she will indeed work it out. She will learn more when the natural consequences of how her behavior effects someone else, how her grades reflect her efforts, how her refusal to wear a coat leads to feeling cold, how her resistance to help leads to your lack of desire to give to her.

Your child needs your trust in his capability to handle tough situations. Being a self-ish parent means that you can stand back, watch, and follow his lead. It is, after all, about him, not about your heroics or your candidacy for “Best Mother in the World”.

A parent’s larder must be full in order to provide help and support, be at the ready to offer an understanding ear or shoulder to cry on, to handle the unanticipated crisis. Self-ishness means knowing what your larder needs to feel full and insuring that you replenish it before it feels depleted. When you practice the art of self-ishness, you will be full enough to handle the hard stuff with more patience and calm.

Self-ish parenting means that you:

  1. Know your needs, rights, and emotions are just as important as your child’s.
  2. Are able to say, “No, this is not okay. How can we work it out so it works for both of us?”
  3. Build the family team through mutual and desired cooperation.
  4. Are honest by taking responsibility for how you feel and what you want. Start with “I” not “You”.
  5. Do not give more than you want or can. Know your limits. Know you cannot nor should not take away your child’s problems.
  6. Allow the natural consequences of behavior to teach the most important lessons.
  7. Trust your child’s process. Let him take the lead.
  8. Take care of your personal needs in order to feel replenished.

Questions and Answers/Story

How do I keep my child in bed at night?

Q. We have a question regarding how to best handle our 4.5 yr. olds habit of crawling into bed with us at night. It’s disrupting everyone’s sleep, and with a new baby, sleep is in short supply. She will only fall asleep if someone is in bed with her. She will come into bed with us multiple times a night. My husband takes her back to her own bed and will have to lay with her to get her back asleep. On nights that she doesn’t come in to bed with us, she will climb into the top bunk with her sister, disrupting her sister’s sleep. We are contemplating a reward system but don’t want to have that be an expectation for the girls.

A. Keep in mind that human babies are evolved to be in the company of others 24 hours a day. We are one of few civilized societies that believe children should sleep alone in their own rooms. We want that for our convenience, and we believe that is one way they become independent (not so). So when children balk at being put to bed alone, it is an “of course”. We need to eliminate any expectation that children should be fine about it, should just say goodnight and go off to sleep. (If you have one of these, count your blessings!) Your expectation should be, Of course my child wants to sleep with us—that is natural and normal. I am not advocating the family bed. Personally, I couldn’t do it. Whatever a family wants is fine. All that said your goal is for your child to go to bed peacefully and sleep through the night. If you want her to sleep alone, you have to motivate her to do so. Motivation doesn’t mean rewards. It means getting her into a new habit as easily as possible for her. First stop the habit of staying in bed with her until she falls asleep. That’s what she wakes up for several times a night. When it’s time to say goodnight, move to a chair in her room. Let her know you will stay there until she falls asleep. If she comes to you, take her back and remind her, “As soon as you are in your bed, I will be in the chair.” Don’t engage in conversation—unless perhaps with singing. If she is incessantly talking or demanding that you come into bed, remind her that the choice is 1) you say goodnight and leave the room (and you may have to hold the door closed while you remind) or 2) she stays in bed quietly and you stay in the chair until she’s asleep. Keep this routine until it is easy for her to stay in bed and fall asleep. Then either leave the chair before she is asleep or move the same routine to a chair outside her door. This could take awhile but it is worth the investment of time. In the middle of the night, continue to take her back to her bed each time she comes in. OR, prepare a mattress on the floor of your room and tell her she can sleep there as long as she doesn’t wake you up when she comes in. If she does, you will take her back to her bed. Keep giving her choices and chances to get it right. As far as disturbing her sister, facilitate them working out a plan together about what is okay and not okay.

How do I raise my son to be a man?

Q. I have an 8 year old boy and his teacher says he acts very young for his age. My ex husband still calls him baby with his name. But my new husband wants to start teaching him to be more like a young man. I get worried about this because man training seems so different from having a girl. I guess I am just being an over protective mother. How do you know when your boy needs to start learning to be a young man? I know his teacher says his babyness is holding him behind in school.

A. Children need to be talked to and dealt with as people, not as babies or boys or girls, but people. You are the one who can answer whether or not you or one of his parents is keeping him overly dependent. Does he need someone to do his basic self care? Do his parents continually do for him what he can do for himself? Calling him “baby” is inappropriate but I wouldn’t suggest telling your ex that unless he can hear it. Make sure you encourage him to speak for himself, hold his own opinions, make decisions about his personal life, choose his own clothes, etc. Be sure you are not telling him what to think, do, say, etc. which is the automatic habit of most parents who think they need to teach all this. Use problem solving questions like, What is it you want? How do you think you can handle that? How can we make this work for both of us? What do you think you can say to him? to help him think through situations on his own. He will grow up on his own time schedule if you follow his lead. “Man training” sounds like trying to make him tough. It is important to make sure he can always express his feelings, that he has empathy for others, and that he’s never told it’s wrong to cry. There are many good books on raising boys in today’s world. He doesn’t need to start learning how to be a young man—he is one, so simply allow him to find himself. If he is naturally immature, let him be. He will catch up in his own time.

Is my child a quitter?

Q. My son is 12 and does well in school. He plays soccer and other than that is not involved in after school activities. Last fall (his first yr of middle school), he was excited about joining the school newspaper. They met every other Thursday. He went to one meeting, then the holidays hit, so meetings were inconsistent. I didn’t want to hound him about it, but did notice he was losing interest. He said he never heard announcements for the mtgs. I believe the school might have dropped the ball as far as consistency, but they did have mtgs. I didn’t “force” him to participate, and he didn’t. Currently, he’s excited about his school’s debate team. I’m afraid the same thing will happen. He’s kind of a home body. Does his homework right away after school, and gets a fair amount of TV/computer time, but he likes his downtime and will read/play games. He wanted to be on the football team, and we didn’t want him to be, so we sort of talked him out of it. I know I can’t “make him” want to follow through w/ the debate team, but I sense a pattern of him being interested in theory, but not wanting to follow through w/the actual activity. How do I handle this with the hoped for outcome of him joining things and following through?

A. He will follow through when he finds something that interests him. Right now, and possibly for years, he is dabbling to find something he likes. He sounds like a diligent kid and sticking close to home is NOT a bad thing. I think that parents get too hung up on this follow-thru idea. Kids will start something and will want to quit if it doesn’t turn out the way they wanted. Wouldn’t you? We jump to the conclusion that the child is a “quitter”, will never follow through and can’t be counted on to commit to anything. Youth is about finding yourself and trying out all kinds of different things. But if they try something and it doesn’t interest them why shouldn’t they stop and try something else? Or lay low for awhile. There are situations when they will cause problems for others if they quit. When he decides to join a team of kids, let him know that he will have an early window of time to decide if it’s not for him so he doesn’t leave the team in the lurch. I understand your concern about football. I would discourage that as well. Just make sure he doesn’t have to look to you for your approval of what he might like to do. Resist the fear that if he decides several things in a row are not for him that he will never be able to commit to anything. That’s called catastrophizing! When he finds a match for his interest, he will stick—hold that trust in him.

Story: Comment from last month

Response to the question last month about the child who is bored at school:

From my own personal experience I would suggest the parents/school may want to consider aptitude testing – psych testing to see whether this child is maybe more than just ‘bright’. Then depending on results they might like to read about gifted kids. Gifted children have a special need, just like children with other non-typical brains and the signs that this child is displaying – boredom, refusal to engage with schoolwork, and especially disrespect for teachers and school – are classic signs and outcomes when this need is not addressed. Long term dangers are complete disengagement from the education system & many consequences, extending to sometimes suicide. It’s a serious issue. The antidote is that the child needs tailored programs to be in place at school so that he has something to be much more interested in, challenged by and to exercise his powerful brain on.

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19 comments on “Newsletter
  1. amy russell says:

    So true. I appreciate the simplicity of the message: let go of the fear and be there. Thank you.

  2. Anita says:

    How very true! I feel so guilty of not been able to do just this 1 thing – “Be there for her”.
    But as I read this article, I find some hope that it is never too late to change

  3. Amelia Trabilsie says:

    That’s brilliant Bonnie, I can never get enough of these messages; sometimes the same message “wrapped up” in different ways, and every time it makes it more and more easy to absorb and take on board in an unconscious/subconscious way. Thank you for these gifts Bonne! Warmest Amelia :)

  4. Kristi says:

    Amen Bonnie,
    For many years my son was overwhelmed with the stimuli of the world and fell apart multiple times daily. He would become a screaming, writhing, spitting creature who scratched his own face to bleeding trying to deal with the difficulty of ordering food from a menu! So many public breakdowns it was so hard to know what we should be doing! Get tough and demand that he “behave”? Well that really didn’t help. Thanks to you and a local therapist I learned not to get caught up in MY emotions when he was out of control of his, just be there. We learned to limit the stressors for him. Today he is a different kid. Successfully navigating the high school waters of intellectual, social and physical challenges and knows when he has had enough and needs to have some downtime. As a primary care provider who sees a lot of parents struggling-I tell them to relax-be there, keep them safe and don’t take their behavior personally- and of course I recommend your books and website! Keep up the great work, and thank you.

    • admin says:

      Kristi – Thank you so much for this comment. I hope everyone reads it. I may even add it to another article when I share parents experiences. You have been in the trenches and know what it’s like to have a difficult kid, didn’t try to change him, and came out the other end with a great kid. These stories are so important for parents to read.

    • Betsy says:

      “Don’t take their behavior personally” — This has become a mantra for me, thanks to Bonnie’s advice. I wish I had employed it when she was a toddler and preschooler. But better late than never!

  5. Amber says:

    hi bonnie,
    thanks for sharing this. I worry about my daughter a lot too, but I guess I don’t give her enough credit either.

  6. Kirsten says:

    This was a timely piece for me. Had just done back to school night and came home to an 11 year old anxious about leaving all his school work at a friend’s house. He was anxious and I had listened to the message of the night, “let them have these experiences where it is safe, don’t rescue them, 70% of this year is organization”, but I knew what my own child needed in order to sleep wasn’t my fear that he wasn’t ever going to pull it together…I also have a much more emotionally challenging middle son (9) and he is often trying so hard, but so inflexible about the actions of others, and still having tantrums, yet intelligent, sweet, and sensitive, sometimes the scariest part is when we aren’t present and then everything gets catastrophic. I was pleased to see the comment above and curious as to how Kristi got through the trenches without worrying about the impact on the family and her son’s self image ?

  7. Amelia Trabilsie says:

    Kristi your comment was so good to read, thank you too :)

  8. Leah Davies says:

    I love your quote, “You are your child’s mountain. While she swirls and blows like a hurricane, sometimes a tornado, around you, she needs to count on your stability and most of all your faith that she has and will continue to have whatever it takes to get through whatever it is” That is wonderful advice. – See more at:

    For 11 additional complimentary parenting handouts, video, and activity that is dedicated to helping parents raise responsible, caring adults, see:

  9. Kristi says:

    In response to Kirsten’s question: it wasn’t elegant, or seamless or a straight path, (and still isn’t) that’s for sure – but I think that is the essence of parenting. No matter what our virtual personas (or that of our friends) depicts to the outside world. It’s messy and scary. Parenting can be like walking alone in a dark forest. We learned to recognize early when WE needed counsel, we also allowed our son a chance to intermittently work with a child therapist, and brought along his sibling. One of my biggest realizations was: I needed to let go of MY agenda for my child. He is who he is, AND he is not this behavior currently. I learned (to try) not to get attached to ANY behavior, whether I liked it or didn’t like it, because it is likely to change. The family dynamic is a huge challenge always. My husband and I try to find common ground and create a united front. We learned it didn’t matter what other people thought we should do with our child, including family… we simplified life. Keep them fed, safe, loved. Keep looking out of the trench occasionally for some inspiration Kirsten and remember “This too shall pass” !

    • admin says:

      Kristi – This is so beautifully put. I so appreciate your response. I totally agree – families are a messy business not matter that they look like. Parenting is the hardest job on the planet. I love the steps of your realizations and how you maneuvered your way.
      Thanks for this.

  10. MK says:

    What you write Bonnie rings so true for me. What can I do when I realise that the way I was parented undermined my confidence and felt like it cut me off at the knees. I feel I have very little resilience myself and don’t want to make the same mistakes. How can I build my own confidence along with my daughters?

    • admin says:

      MK – What you are describing is exactly why I wrote my book, When Your Kids Push Your Buttons. It is all about how our own childhood experiences effect how we parent our children – and most importantly, what we can do about it. I would highly recommend checking it out. You can get my book on amazon, you can get the audio download version of it on my website, you can also order the workbook filled with exercises to go along with it. And I have a When Your Kids Push Your Buttons teleseminar available for download that is 12 hours of the Buttons workshop and has the workbook included for more intense work. You can read about it here.

  11. i love the simplicity of this message! This is a challenge for me at home with two teenagers and the ups and downs that teenage life brings. I recognize how my frustration may have actually been perpetuated by my own actions of protecting and solving problems that they should be given the chance to handle themselves. With a college student 1200 miles away this challenge becomes more complicated at times. My goal is to practice by stepping back this week.
    Bonnie… I would love to add a link for this article on my preschool blog, which is private to families enrolled at The Amherst Preschool. Is that possible?
    Thank you
    Ellen Grudzien

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