individualism, selfishness, and discipline in parenting

Should we discipline all our kids when one of them misbehaves?

Sunday morning I attended a Bible class in which one of the subjects covered was discipline.  The teacher asked if we believe selfishness is inherent by nature or the result of nurture.  Is self-centeredness born into us, or do well-meaning parents put it there through pampering and coddling?

My take has always been that babies are born incredibly selfish.  They cry when they want something — generally until they get that something.  I’m sure it’s a survival mechanism and a great way to communicate needs to the parentals, but still… it’s selfish, isn’t it?  Each and every baby views him/herself as the center of the universe.

And as babies grow up to be children who are aware of their surroundings, that self-centered view of the world, unaltered, becomes sin.  I’m not sure I can think of a single sin that doesn’t begin first with the sin of selfishness.

So I spoke up in Bible class.

I explained what I’ve written so far in this post, but then went on to hypothesize that parents often do nourish that selfishness (which is already present) in their children.  But where we live might determine how exactly we go about feeding and growing self-centeredness in our kids.  What we American parents often nurture into our children is a highly individualistic selfishness — versus a community-centered selfishness in some other parts of the world.

By nature (I believe) children will be jealous, greedy, and inconsiderate.  But I wonder if American children aren’t more likely to be individually so?  Maybe the African child is protective of his family and village, and maybe Chinese kids chant “ours, ours, ours” rather than “mine, mine, mine?”

And then I started wondering how exactly we, as American parents, nurture into our children this individualism.  Do we honor and praise individual efforts and achievements above those of the group?  [Take a look at individual stats in team sports for an answer to this question.]  Do we punish individuals when we ought to be disciplining groups?  Should our kids share a room even if we’ve got houses big enough for them not to?  Should chores be given to each kid individually, or should the children earn their allowances as a group?  I’ve got lots of questions.

But the one that stood out to me was whether or not we ought to punish groups for the sins of an individual.  As a soccer coach I did this fairly often.  The entire team might run laps for the mistakes of only a few.  I believe it’s important for teammates to understand that what they do (or don’t do) will necessarily affect their teammates.  If one guy was late getting his boots on for warm-ups before a match (and that one guy was late an amazing number of times), I wouldn’t punish the entire team… directly.  But that one guy did lose his starting spot on the roster that day.  And the team suffered as a consequence.

But it’s not just me who believes it might be a good idea to punish all my children for the wrongs of one or a few.  Throughout the Bible God does this.  God, in all of his wisdom, regularly disciplines the majority for the sins of a majority.  But — in fairness — I should add that we also see God rewarding the majority for the righteousness of a minority.  [Thank you, Jesus.]

I won’t get into all those examples; feel free to comment about some of them below.  But I will ask you parents what you think (and you non-parents feel free to chime in as well).  Do we nurture individualism in our kids?  Is it healthy?  Do you have a big house, but your kids still share a room?  Do you ever punish all your kids for the sins of one?  Do you ever reward all of them for the good behavior of one?  Do you think we ought to?  


I increasingly find myself thinking about discipline in parenting.  If you do too, you might be interested in this post — corporal punishment: to spank or not to spank.  I’ve also written on individualism before, but in the context of the larger church: to combat individualism — practical advice.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “individualism, selfishness, and discipline in parenting

  1. Great post, Brett! You ask some tough questions that will stir Westerners up–you are pretty good at that. Lately I have been pondering how much our individualistic tendencies have adversely impacted our missions practices. One of the worst things about it is this is a “blind spot” for most of us. Just like the sign on the tractor-trailer, there is danger when you cannot see something so large that is running in a “blind spot.” Thanks for shining a light on this issue. It will be interesting seeing the responses.

  2. Jason

    Wow, these are some challenging questions. I’m not a parent. I’m not even married. So take everything I say with a grain of salt. Maybe two. But yes I do think we encourage individual selfishness in American culture at large. It can be seen in everything we do from the way people feel entitled (about just about everything) to the way our court system works. And even though I can see this going on I have to wonder, would I be willing to punish my kids as a whole for the transgressions of one or two of them? Its deeply ingrained in me and though I can see it, making those decisions won’t be easy. Change rarely is easy. But I hope, pray, and intend to instill these lessons in my kids (assuming I have them someday) and that is a legitimate method in order to do so. I’m afraid if I fail in this aspect they may or may not learn the lesson through the fact that their father failed so they will suffer for it.

  3. The Sarcastic One

    I refuse to accept that we Americans do anything badly. We got it right a long time ago and we just keep on truckin’. Go America.

    Congrats. Enjoy your last month and a half in dreamland. Probably drive out and play golf with Carson in two mondays…another thing created somewhere else (so I’m told) but perfected in America. Warming up my clubs to welcome you back.

  4. I don’t have much time to think about this since I am about to leave for work. But as a public school teacher a comment I would make is:
    I see on almost a daily basis how one child’s misbehavior can hurt the whole class. Let’s say we on teaching and learning and one child decides to interrupt the flow, usually by trying to attract everyone’s attention away from the learning and onto them, we lose our momentum and it can take 5 or 10 minutes to get it back. Sometimes we don’t get it back before the class is over. I believe this hurts everyone just like your example of a soccer team.
    As for a Biblical example, I think of when Achan sinned. God told Moses that Israel had sinned and that was the reason the nation lost their battle. Even though it was only one man who had sinned, God said, “Israel” had sinned. He sees His people as one body.
    I hope to spend some time thinking about your post.

  5. I’m not a parent, so I don’t have much to add here, but I enjoyed reading this and thinking about it in case I am one day. In trying to imagine some of the instances where you might punish both (or all) kids because of what one did, and I can see some. But I can also see how that would seem horribly unfair (not that life is fair and maybe that is a worthy lesson) and maybe confusing. If I bring home a bad grade because I refused to participate in my gym class, should my sister who is 6 years older than me also get in trouble? I mean it was my disobedience in a time and place where she was not… Or maybe that is not what you are referring to exactly? I could see if Julie and I were playing football in the house and a lamp got broken. Doesn’t really matter who broke the lamp, what matters is that we were told not to play football in the house and we did.

    I just wonder if group discipline for the sin of one (in certain contexts) could be confusing and I don’t think discipline should be confusing.

  6. Uggbootdiva

    oh my jolly goodness! what an awesome post! It has often annoyed me supremely esp. as a child, when i read in the OT that God would punish the whole tribe because a few stuffed up. I’m Australian, but not sure our culture is all that different, although we do have tall poppy syndrome if you are too clever as an individual… unless it’s sport of course.
    such a fascinating topic, it has come up before when we were reading and thinking about the “group” or “family” baptisms in Act. In our society it seems to be this individual act (or first communion or whatever- I went to a baptist church so you got full immersion baptised) and we had discussions over whether it was ok to make promises for your kids (christening) or baptise the whole family as in Acts, because shouldn’t it be between the person and God Etc.

    as to punishing both kids….all my parenting and childhood experiences say “NO NO”. Plus you’ve got to admit in society there are some crimes we punish individually eg., murder. even though as society we all suffer the consequences of that act. I just remember, as a child, my (older) brother and I both being punished for stuff my brother did and it didn’t make us better friends or help us to stick together (as my mum hoped), it actually drove us apart and we hated one another, and don’t really get on all that well now (although this wasn’t of course the only reason).

    I think there needs to be some kind of understanding of responsibility ie. you are responsible for your younger sibling, you are responsible for the employees in your company etc. before you can start group punishments and rewards.

    So there’s my 10c worth. I really enjoy (don’t always agree with) your posts for their thoughtfulness and they are interesting sticky topics that need to be thought about.

  7. So selfishness is wanting what you want without caring about others, but babies don’t even know that others exist, so can they really be called selfish? I think selfishness comes into play when they realize that others exist and want something different than them, but still try to have things their way. That has nothing to do with the main point of your post which I find quite interesting, I just don’t have anything to say about it!

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