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If We Keep Teaching our Children to be Selfish, We Can't Bemoan a Culture of Egoism

Posted: 16/07/2012 00:00

From the very day they are born, our children are told that life is a competition. They are told that they must work their hardest to be quicker, stronger, sharper and more successful than their peers. They are told to follow their aspirations, and to not let anything or anyone stand in their way.

It recently struck me how well these sentiments resonate with our current climate of egoism. We bemoan the selfishness of bankers and politicians who have discarded the interests of so many others to reach the positions of wealth and authority that we equate with success.

But, with our prevailing parental teachings in mind, should we be at all surprised by their behaviour? Isn't it what we wanted from our progeny all along? After all, they have successfully reached high flying, ostensibly respectable positions in society. They have climbed the ladders. They have accumulated wealth and status, beating so many others to the punch.

Isn't it strange that the people we currently despise so much live the life of affluence that we all want for our children? They embody the character traits we wish to instil in our own flesh and blood, and they are the very same 'winners' that we all wish our children to be.

But no matter how much we stigmatise self-centered elites in the work place, I am willing to bet their parents are still proud of what they have accomplished, despite their often destructive influence on our society. The reason for this should be blindingly obvious because, at the end of the day, it's a bias as clear as any other: we remain blind to the moral defects of our own offspring. Every parent wants a 'winner' for a son or daughter, no matter the cost to others.

The pernicious moral message of egoism that we deliver to our children will continue to be passed down from generation to generation as long as having an 'unsuccessful' child is deemed socially unacceptable. Espousing a doctrine of self-fulfilment drives certain individuals to be excellent, sure, but individualism can never enforce upon societies the cooperative behaviours that they need to develop and to flourish.

What's worse is that we still rely on fallible test scores to judge academic excellence and intelligence, and from these we incorrectly infer which individuals are of most value to society. Arguably nurses, social-carers and charity workers do more to promote the communal good than bankers, businessmen, and politicians respectively. But our parents teach us to emulate the later and not the former group of professions, partly because of the massive divergence in remunerations between them.

So here's what I want to teach my kid: that his interests are no more important than anyone else's. That to sacrifice his own wants in pursuit of a greater good is not just an acceptable mode of living, but is in fact the most desirable one. That he should not leave his life to the mercy of his own fancies or passions, but to always keep in mind how his actions will impact upon others.

It was Einstein who once said "try not to become a man of success, but rather to become a man of value". In my humble opinion there can be no better piece of advice for modern parenting than that.

 

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