Sharing vs. Self-Denial: When Your Kids Insist on Martyrdom

Martyrdom_Of_Saint_SebastianWe’re at the local neighborhood playground after school, my two boys and I, playing some basketball. Our 9 year-old, D, had been hungry – and tetchy and sullen – so we’d stopped at a shop and picked up a packet of bread sticks.

A bit later I notice my 5 year-old son, G, looking dejected, and discover it’s because his older brother has refused him a bread stick.

Now in the grand scheme of things, a bread stick does not rank up there among the gravest of issues of life in the 21st century. One slim stick of factory cracker, even if it is “Nueva Formula! Ahora con 10% Aceite de Oliva!,” is somewhat less momentous than, say, global climate change or child poverty. Still. I look at D chidingly but gently, and ask, “Can you give your brother a bread stick?”

D: (a bit hotly) Fine. Take three! 

And that’s when I lose it. You see, this is an ongoing thing, and his brother does it too, so this has been building for some time.

Me: (voice rising) He’s not asking for three, he’s asking for one. Why do you always play the martyr? Why is it always all or nothing? (walking over and examining the packet of bread sticks) There are 5 in here. Why would you give him the majority of them? All I’m asking is for you to share one friggin bread stick, and you immediately go overboard and act like some peevish and put-upon saint. (flopping arms around, mockingly) Just take them all! If I have to share, at least I can look like a victim while I’m doing it. 

And that’s when I notice the tears in D’s eyes. I feel like a bully and a shit. What could have been a simple, calm lesson on sharing has ended up with me acting like a thug. I know what to do. I know I should rewind and quietly explain that while it’s nice to share, it’s not nice to exaggerate the action, shortchange yourself, then pout about it. Which he, and his brother, do all the time.

But that’s not what I do. I go back to shooting baskets and toss away another opportunity to talk about this unfortunate affliction. But here’s the problem. I’m simply fed up with this particular form of self-abnegation, this pitiful self-pity. It’s been going on for far too long, and we’ve discussed it far too many times.

Let me give you another example, so as to be clear. This time it’s our youngest going all St. Stephen being stoned to death. The boys have come across one of those super-bouncy balls on the terrace. There’s only one ball but two boys and that’s causing friction. They begin to argue, and the tone of G’s voice takes on the soprano notes and long vowels of a burgeoning whine. I nip the whine in the bud and suggest that they share the ball, either by taking turns with it or finding a game they can both play.

G: (turning persecuted, disconsolate) D can have it, I won’t play with it at all.

Me: But you can both play with it.  

G: No, it’s all for D. I don’t want it.

Me: But isn’t playing with the ball together, or half of the time, better than not at all? 

G: D can have it, I don’t want it. (a low, ominous rumble of thunder in the distance, blood-red crosses flash in the background as the boy silently trudges away, going to offer himself up to be fed to the lions)

So what do you do? That’s not rhetorical – What do you do? Do your kids do this as well? When asked to share, do they leap to the opposite extreme with a sense of martyred self-denial? If so, what strategies do you use to curb this behavior? We’ve talked about it a gazillion times, but they just keep doing it. Over and over.

So, please share you thoughts, your methods, your actions, your answers. Because I don’t want to torment my kids again, but folks, this thing is making me thuggish.




bear punch

“When you say ‘Yes’ to others, make sure you are not saying ‘No’ to yourself.”

  • Paulo Coehlo

16 thoughts on “Sharing vs. Self-Denial: When Your Kids Insist on Martyrdom

  1. It sounds like the kids are still concrete thinkers. It is quite difficult for kids to understand “shades of grey”, until they are older and when they can’t have things the way they would prefer, or when we as parents intervene in their sibling rivalry (aka challenge for dominance) spats, they might try to gain some attention by being a martyr?

    Sharing is hard work for kids because they learn that many other kids their age don’t reciprocate the sharing in return. It is also difficult being a parent and finding time talking through all these subtle feelings and thoughts again and again. As they grow the kids become more street smart and manipulative! I reacted like you when my boys were young, it is a normal release valve, but if I had those times over, I would sit each down separately and chat to them more often about their issues and see if I could find the underlying motivation for them to do this. Or you can let the guys work it out between themselves. Challenge them to suggest a solution that “helps others but not at the expense of themselves and conversely, help themselves but not at the expense of others” We seemed to have success (on occasions) with this method. Good luck and persevere.


  2. For what it’s worth. ..ignore anyone choosing to play the martyr. .don’t feed it ever,especially in your kids..I think you are far from a thug, the most annoying personality trait a person can have and I would insist every day of the week “stop being a martyr ” explain the meaning of the word to G and further explain how uncool it is to be a martyr. ..tell G exactly how much it annoys people and your reasons for yelling..I am a grandma and in my lifetime have known a martyr or 2..ignore if you are able to, otherwise just tell em straight!!! Cheers from Annie on the Gold Coast in Australia 🌞🌴🌊

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s a tough place to be. I have a 4yo and 1 yo so haven’t reached this stage. With the older one, though, I have found positive reinforcement helps. So if I want her to do something, I say I know Sara will share with her brother, she cares for him and she knows it’s more fun to play together ( tony husband or the air if he isn’t there). It’s worked so far. I feel that may lead her to need a lot of patting on the back later, but right now it works better than yelling. Hope this helps.


    • Thanks, backpackingmama! I do the positive reinforcement thing for the most part, until that string in my brain snaps and I let that human who lingers behind the parent part the curtains momentarily. Thanks for visiting and sharing your thoughts – I appreciate it!


  4. Pingback: Sharing vs. Self-Denial: When Your Kids Insist on Martyrdom | The Darks Side

  5. Pingback: Sharing vs. Self-Denial: When Your Kids Insist on Martyrdom | The Harried Husband

  6. I find that similar thoughts cross my own mind when I feel upset by someone… it is a very ugly behaviour, but seems to be very deeply human. My grandmother was a master martyr. It is a behaviour that must serve some inner drive for meaning. But it is an ugly one to see up close and personal.


    • We lived on Gellert Hegye (hill) in Budapest, named after St. Gerard, who was martyred in 1046 by being rolled down the hill in a wine barrel studded with nails. Now THAT’S martyrdom. Beats a damn bread stick, that’s for sure. Maybe I’ll have to share that story next time the issue arises.

      Anyway, thanks for stopping by and leaving your comments – I appreciate it.


  7. That is a hard one. Perhaps trying to just ignore the behavior? They may be doing it for the reaction as well.. regardless if it is negative or not. Instead, try saying thank-you for sharing, and just leave it at that. Sometimes I think with kids it can just become a habit/knee jerk reaction and they will eventually grow out of it. Best of luck.. sorry for the lame advice.


    • Not lame at all, simpsonmom. I do try to ignore it as best I can, but sometimes…
      I know they’ll grow out of it, but as of now it grates on my nerves. Anyway, thanks for visiting and sharing your thoughts (which are totally not lame). 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Oh dear! That’s a rough one. I can understand you lose your cool especially if it’s going on for long; I’d be too! Have you ever ask G, gently why he’d do that? Maybe he can explain. wonder why they do that. Actually adults do too! (And I know of a few. With adults, I just ignore and leave them to sulk!)


    • Martyrdom knows no age limit. I would wager there are just as many if not more senior citizen martyrs than child ones. And yes, I’ve done the gently, gently let’s discuss our feelings approach many times. Still do, in fact. It’s just occasionally that I totally lose my shit. 😉


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