Letter to a Selfish Child

by G. Murphy Donovan  (March 2014)

“The man who does not value himself, cannot value anything or anyone.” – Ayn Rand

seldom talk to your folks about your behavior, no less what might be done about it. Parents circle the wagons when outsiders volunteer criticism or advice, especially when the subject is children. Love often smothers common sense. So let me talk to you directly, you the potential adult; surely a stretch at this point. Nonetheless, I’m going to give candor a chance. Sometimes, especially when all else has failed, only the truth will do.

Let’s get right to the nut. You are a rude, selfish, ungrateful, and lazy child. Indeed, your behavior is more appropriate for a five year old than a six foot, 200 pound teen. You get what you want when you want it. And you’re not too fussy about how. You have developed a cynical repertoire to manipulate your parents. For the most part, you succeed. Success comes at the expense of maturity. What might be excused as childish today has all the earmarks of adult pathology tomorrow.

Your parents anguish about your appearance, your hygiene, work habits, your grades, and your manners. Soap, or a toothbrush, seems to be bridges too far. At the same time, your parents worry more about your feelings than your behavior. They rant. You sulk and whine. They feel guilty and relent. Then it’s back to business as usual.

You are one of Gogol’s dead souls. You live in a world without consequence. Your lame behavior is more likely to be rewarded than it is to be restrained. And any limits, the few that we have observed, seem to be optional – or have early expiration dates.

Examples of selfish behavior you ask? The other night, you ate an entire rack of lamb while the adults chatted through a seafood appetizer. Are you channeling a pit bull? It never occurred to you to share the entre platter with others? And you can’t get past a meal without instructing the table about what you will not eat!

You often come to dinner with a supersized bag of chips and a half gallon of bug juice. You cannot take a car ride without a soft drink or bag of junk food. You don’t eat, you graze. You leave your detritus, bags and cans, to be picked up by others. You cannot do anything without being asked a half dozen times. You are an XXL slob! Need I go on?

I suspect that you see behavior as a contest, a game you can always win. Conversely, you are reluctant to compete with adults or peers where you can’t win. You need to get a clue here; losing is part of all endeavors. Failure is a learning opportunity. Competition is not just good, it’s the key to all improvement. I suspect that you don’t participate in organized games for fear of losing. If you can’t control outcomes, you have no interest.

Yet you, more than any other kid I know, need to learn to follow before you try to lead. “Lead” is one of those homonyms where you are, at the moment, more the noun than the verb. Inert, indeed!

Maturity is not an abstraction, so let’s be clear. Growing up is the process of moving from me to thee. When Anne Frank was your age, she had already written a book; a diary that declared: “Nobody ever became poor by helping others.” Anne didn’t live to see her sixteenth birthday. Yet, she understood the need to think about others.

What others you might ask?

Start with your parents. Your parents are unusually gifted; overachievers methinks, and you are the beneficiary of that success. You have seen more of the world and its snack foods at fifteen than your peers will see in a lifetime. You have every gadget, toy, and comfort that any child could want.

You eat what you want, when you want. Quite frankly, mostly garbage. And don’t kid yourself about those gallons of diet sludge, you’re still fat. And the chemicals in ‘diet’ and packaged products will probably kill you quicker than calories. 

If you don’t like what’s set before you, “Papa” leaves the table to cook a pound or two of burger for you. At restaurants, you invariably order the most expensive entre on the menu, wasting any vegetable that doesn’t suit your junk food palate. Even if I were to give you a hormone handicap; you would still be an acute pain in the azimuth.

Throughout, I believe that you think you love your parents and they you. Unfortunately, love is never enough when respect is lacking. You don’t respect them and they anguish over you. Somehow, they feel responsible or guilty for your rude behavior. I don’t buy that.

An adult is responsible for who he is and what he might become. You are master of your destiny – or you are a victim. Believe me, beyond the family bubble, no one caters to selfish bores – or is it boars?

If you don’t clean up your act, your parents may not be around as long as you might like. At some point there is no papa, no mama. If you don’t take responsibility for lowering their stress level, that day may come sooner than you think. Stress is the early bird of pathology. Rude carnivores cannot depend on the kindness of strangers either.

We don’t suffer any illusions about how you got to where you are. You are a created problem, a creature of indulgence. Somehow, “spoiled” doesn’t quite capture the size of your deficit. I may be naïve to think that you might be easier to reach than your folks. But trust me, if we didn’t care about all of you, I wouldn’t bother with this letter – or friendship for that matter. 

Your kid sister likes to call you a “moron;” sympathetic as I might be to those sentiments, I disagree. Stupidity is like peeing into the wind and then wondering why your socks are wet. You’re not that. You are cynical and rebellious, an insurgent with an eating disorder. Your defiance tests the limits of zippers and permissiveness.

You don’t take your school work seriously because it doesn’t interest you. I get that. School is more custodial than educational. I get that too. All things are dumbed down to low common denominators today. Roger that also! Teaching, sadly, is the default setting for too many who cannot or will not do other things. There you have my condolences. My sympathies to you on all things institutional; I was raised by nuns and braised by the military.

Unfortunately, formal schooling today is like puberty, an unavoidable rite of passage. We school because the state preempts parenting. Law now requires two mandatory tours with an institutional “confederacy of dunces.”

Expectations are a heavy burden too. Your parents were exceptional students. Their approach was to make the best of the worst and then get on with true education, life’s experiences. Having diplomas is not the same as education, but credentials open a lot of doors in a world of numb nuts.  

Life is about many things; but two stand out. Life is what we do while we are waiting to die. Life is also a compromise between the way things are and the way we think they ought to be. The key word is compromise; you give a little to get a little. Sometimes you just have to take one for the team – a team like your family.

Children too often think about family as a one-way street; parents give, kids get. Wrong! Children have obligations too, especially not to torment their parents. And you have a special obligation not to exploit the guilt that all Jewish mothers have about sons, especially when half the progeny is a large firstborn putz.

Your obligation begins with respect. Give your parents credit for having enough experience to know what might be good for you. When you give a little you always get a better return. Respect for others begins with self-respect. You need to cultivate behavior worthy of regard.

You’re too young to have so many arrogant opinions too. You’re no Tom Friedman. Acquire some knowledge and experience first, then you can dispense with humility. Understand the difference between smart and smartass too. As Mark Twain might say: “it’s like the difference between lightning and lightning bugs.”

Rudeness may be the norm when you hide behind a screen name. But when you are beak-to-beak in the real world, obnoxious is just another turd in the porridge.

Life is a team sport. No one respects a slacker who thinks he can change the rules inflight. Indeed, every time you use a gadget to ignore your folks, we pray that your dad might cancel your account in the interests of civility. When California geeks invented the smart phone and tablet, they weren’t thinking of you, son.

Every small thing asked of you is a prolonged negotiation too. “Because I said so” is reason enough for twits. When you are competent enough to pay for your own lamb chops, then you can negotiate. If your next Big Gulp, bag of cinnamon swirls, gadget, or vacation were predicated on adult behavior, my guess is that you would mature overnight.

And let’s not confuse your condition with healthy self-interest. Your condition has nothing to do with liberty or personal freedom. Self-interest is one of those prudent mid-points, the fulcrum that balances selflessness and selfishness. Your behavior doesn’t come close to sensible compromise.

I’m going to give you an assignment for extra credit. I want you to meditate for the remainder of the winter on the five touchstones of civility: hello, goodbye, please, thank you, and you’re welcome. Focus especially on the last two. You are an ungrateful, insensitive twerp. You need to get over that. 

There you have it. If I have forgotten anything please let me know. Someday I’ll tell you what I really think, Share this with your parents if you like, but I fear they might come to your defense. I don’t want to hear any excuses from you in any case. No more excuses, ever!

This isn’t my first rodeo. I have been watching you wallow in gratification for fifteen years. Trim your toenails, take a bath, get a haircut – and get a clue. You’re starting to look and act like a budget version of Oscar Wilde.

Big hello to Babushka, the nanny, the maid, the tutor, the driver, your sister, the cats, the dogs, and the tortoise. Condolences to your parents also for the son that might have been; too old too soon, too smart too late.

All the best. 


This letter was sent in February to the son of good friends. Names are redacted here to protect the guilty. 


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