Recently I led a series of three classes for parents on helping children develop empathy using Michele Borba’s book, UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. As Borba points out, the rise of the selfie syndrome and the accompanying fall of empathy in children, an increase in peer cruelty and anxiety and cheating, and a decrease in moral reasoning skill—all in an increasingly plugged-in, high pressure culture—is a cause for great concern. As the title suggests, Borba appeals to our desire to want our children to be successful as children and adults and provides a blueprint to follow to achieve it. Borba claims:
the ability to empathize affects children’s future health, wealth, authentic happiness, relationship satisfaction, and the ability to bounce back from adversity. It promotes kindness, prosocial behaviors, and moral courage, and it is an effective antidote to bullying, aggression, prejudice and racism.
Ample evidence is provided to support these claims, but more importantly, Borba helps parents see that some of the very behaviors that they might feel are going to lead to their child’s future success will more likely work against it. For this reason, I suggest you need courage and conviction to read and actually absorb the book and, quite possibly, make some changes.
The book is full of common-sense. It promotes some old-fashioned, ordinary, altruistic behaviors that cost little or no money. It requires valuing and providing the time for very basic and critical human interactions, face-to-face, and encourages the kinds of conversations that increase emotional literacy. It teaches us that the greatest teaching we do with children is modeling—that is, our own actions.
It is an easy read in the sense that Borba has provided handy summaries of the nine chapters, spelling out how to develop the skills needed for empathy and moral courage. Within the chapters the advice is broken down into doable, memorable steps for practicing those skills. What makes the book a tough read, though, is the number of ways that parents reading the book might need to change their words and their actions to truly provide their child with the strongest path to empathy and moral courage. The skills are not something that you can get from a prep class or an online game. They are skills that grow in small ways, over time, in ordinary everyday life—if everyday routines provide the right catalysts.
It takes commitment and courage to use time differently. It is hard to unplug completely—in order to be physically, mentally, and emotionally present for children. It is challenging to set aside time to read with children the high-quality books of fine literature full of role models of empathy, kindness, and moral courage such as Charlotte’s Web. It takes time to sit down with your child and watch substantive movies such as Bambi, Despicable Me, or October Sky and then spend time afterwards digging into the characters and what choices and actions they took and why. Setting up a schedule that provides regular opportunities to broaden your child’s perspective through dinner table discussions about current events and playground issues is really tough in today’s world of over-booked children. Finding time to explore your community and beyond is essential, and yet when? Saving time each weekend for family meetings, family nights, and family outings may seem impossible and yet can make all the difference in your children gaining the requisite skills to be empathetic.
The book suggests many ways to change our language for more optimal outcomes, and yet this may be the most challenging of all. It takes awareness, patience, practice, and reflection. It is a challenge to sit on the sidelines as your child competes without giving the impression that what you value is not winning at all costs but rather the joy of a good competition. It means finding the language to project that it is not being the best that is the goal, but rather doing your best and enjoying that others are trying to do theirs. And, it means helping your child recognize and describe examples of moral courage, your own and that of others, and watching for small ways your child can practice moral courage.
Rising to the Challenge
Creating an environment that surrounds children with high expectations for kindness and moral courage is an ongoing endeavor. As a long-time teacher, a parent, and a grandparent, I want to assure you that this endeavor is well worth it in the long run. Every effort you make as a parent counts. Based on my experience, these are some of Borba’s best suggestions:
- Include old-fashioned chores, pitching in for the sake of others in the family, as part of the norm.
- Expect your child to be an upstander, not a bystander. Spend time debriefing difficult situations with your child and developing strategies and the skills to execute in new situations.
- Model being an upstander, mustering up your own moral courage.
- Be willing to hold your children accountable for their actions, letting them know when you are disappointed in just the right tone—not yelling, not isolating. Through discussion you can help your children understand the effects of their behavior on others and what would be better choices.
Being a parent is being one’s very best self, as much of the time as we can possibly can, for the sake of our children. It is so essential for their social and emotional growth and well-being—so key to their future success.
Be brave—set high expectations based on family values as Borba suggests and help your children rise to those expectations. It might be scary to think about cutting out an activity or activities for your child or children, but consider it. Reclaim some family time routinely such as evening meals or Sunday afternoons. Find ways to “be kind” as a family. Spend time every single day reading aloud to your children from books of both literary and moral value. Read Borba’s book, which is full of the how-tos that will support you as you embark on the challenge of helping your child develop empathy, each and every day. Take courage, commit—it will lead to your child’s success and altruism.