Elisa Tremblay

Marriage & Family Life

Tremblay is the marriage and life ministries director for the Diocese of Green Bay.

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How parents cultivate the virtue of selflessness

By Elisa Tremblay | April 29, 2023

I must admit, I am a huge fan of true stories and documentaries. I enjoy the entertainment factor, but, mostly, I am inspired by real people rising above actual struggles or difficulties.

One such story I came across recently had an underlying theme of the effect of selflessness. This story happened about 10 years ago in Oregon, during a basketball game between two small high schools. The communities were close-knit and the teams were average, but well supported by their fans.

As is common in these stories, the best action happens in the last few seconds.

In this case, the winning team was up by a significant amount, and the coach on what would become the losing team allowed a player with special needs into the game to play the last couple of minutes. The team rallied around their teammate, often throwing the ball his way to give him a chance to make a shot.

After multiple failed attempts, the crowd was rooting for the young man, but to no avail. The final seconds were on the clock and the best player on the team had possession of the ball. As the buzzer was about to go off, instead of taking the shot himself and getting all of the attention, the young man called out the player with special needs and threw him the ball.

As you might imagine, by luck and by grace, that player got the ball into the net and the entire gym erupted. This small gesture by the better basketball player was a huge example to everyone in that gym that day of the power of a selfless act. (See oregonlive.com/sports/2013/02/two_oregon_teenagers_a_basketb.html.)

Being selfless — putting the good of others first — is called “the Golden Rule” in our Catholic faith as we learn to “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you” (Mt 7:12). During Holy Week and into Easter, we have celebrated the most selfless act of all time: Christ choosing to sacrifice himself on the cross to redeem our world and open the gates of Heaven for us.

Growing in this virtue of selflessness is an integral part of our faith as we often challenge ourselves to fast and give up things we are attached to as well as to serve and put others first. We strive to continually die to ourselves to be in full communion with God and his will for our lives.

Adults are typically aware of the benefits of this virtue, but how do children learn to grow in this way, especially when they live in a culture that promotes very opposite ideals?

In my years of studying marriage and family relationships, I have observed something I personally call “The Cycle of Selflessness.” This is essentially the growth of selfless behaviors in our lives and how we naturally learn to live out this virtue.

I recognize that, when a baby is born, it is practically 100% self-centered. The baby, by necessity, relies on others for everything. As that child grows into a toddler, the start of an awareness of selflessness happens as parents teach the child to go from claiming everything as “mine” to learning how to share.

The cycle continues in the school-age years as the act of making and keeping friends requires a deeper growth in selflessness as children learn to connect with others and “play fair.”

The teenage years are when selflessness blossoms as the young person begins to show interest in someone of the opposite sex and starts to find ways to make that person happy. In the young adult years and beyond, selfless growth blossoms into reality as a person may seek a future spouse, become engaged and vow to live the rest of his or her life for the other person.

As a married couple, the challenge of living together for life brings about its own refining of selflessness as each spouse works to meet the other spouse’s needs.

Finally, when the married couple has a child, the limits of growth in selflessness knows no boundaries as the baby demands all the time in the day and night for parents to attend to his or her needs. This is where the cycle of selflessness begins again.

In our day and age, when popular culture too often points to “selfies” and self-indulgence, being intentional about teaching and growing in selflessness is vital. Michaelyn Hein authored a great article titled: “How to raise selfless children in a ‘me first’ world” (selfsufficientkids.com) in which she notes that personal examples to our children matter. Praise their good works often. Demonstrate kindness and generosity to them. And, most importantly, teach empathy and forgiveness.

By modeling this ourselves and following the natural stages of selfless awareness in our children’s lives, we automatically create a positive recipe for success. As parents, we know that teaching our children is challenging work and certainly not every act of selflessness will be made into a documentary.

Rest assured that even the smallest of efforts in this area, over time, will have a significant impact on your children’s lives and, ultimately, in this world.

Tremblay is the marriage and life ministries director

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