Combatting cultural selfishness

Published 10:33 pm Tuesday, September 3, 2019

By Nathan Rice

We had the gym to ourselves when we arrived. I turned on the lights, and the two middle schoolers with me ran to the container of sports balls and equipment at the back of the gym. We stayed for a while and played every game possible with the items available. Eventually, their attention spans had been reached on each of the games, and they asked, “Can we leave now?” I granted their request, so they started heading towards the doors.

“Wait,” I said. “First, we have to put everything back and clean up.” They looked at me strangely, as if an antenna were growing out of my head. Finally, one of them asked, “Why?”

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His tone of voice wasn’t one of disrespect, and neither one of them appeared that they were only trying to get out of work. They were genuinely perplexed by my statement.

I explained that we should leave the gym in the condition in which we found it when we arrived. I gave instructions to put all the basketballs, Frisbees, games, and anything else they used back into the storage bin. “This place should look like it was when we got here,” I explained.

I know kids tend to leave a mess, and I understand fully that middle school boys are not known for their neatness. However, I was saddened by their confusion about why we would clean up after ourselves. The concept of respecting the property of the place we were visiting was a foreign concept to them.

I suppose I should not have been surprised by their reactions. Our culture promotes a selfish attitude. A quick trip around town will show the selfishness of others. Grocery carts dot parking lots because people are not considerate of others who may wish to park where their cart was left. A stop at the oceanfront, which is often covered in cigarette butts, will show the number of individuals who think saving themselves a few steps to properly discard their trash is more important than leaving a clean place for the rest of the community. Similarly, the parking lot and yard of where I work is filled daily with the litter of people who have determined it is OK to throw trash onto private property. Some days the litter blows through the yard like a tumbleweed in the west.

Is it possible to raise children who are respectful of people’s property with this culture in place? What can we do to help our children combat culturally acceptable selfishness?

The first thing we must do is to set the example with our behavior. Push the grocery cart to the return area, don’t litter, and clean up after yourself when you’re in a space used by others. Kids will notice how you act.

We should also be ready to explain the importance of doing the things we do to respect others. A quick sentence or two may be all that is needed. “Let’s push this cart back, or we’ll block someone’s parking space. I don’t want to do that to someone else.” “I want everyone to enjoy the gym like we do, so let’s leave it clean for whoever is next.” These short, simple sentences start letting children hear the reason behind the things we do.

Lastly, we must be instilling in our children that every person is valuable. A haughty attitude towards people will show them there is a pecking order in life, and respect only has to be given to those in a higher position than themselves. We must demonstrate and teach that every person is important.

It’s not easy in our culture, but children can still learn to respect the people and places around them. We will have to remind them frequently, and it will not happen overnight. It’s a process, but a process that we must follow if we want our children to be respectful of other people’s places and things.

Nathan Rice is a Hampton Roads native and can be reached at