Parents aim to cultivate a laundry list of qualities in their children, hoping they will grow to be competent, successful adults. But there’s one critical attribute that is quickly fading in today’s youth. In fact, it may not even be on parents’ radar: empathy.
“I don’t think we recognize the value of it,” says Michele Borba, best-selling author and nationally known parenting expert. “We still see it as soft, fluffy, and not integral.”
Her latest book, UnSelfie: Why Empathic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, is garnering significant attention from parents and the media as she explains why empathy — not GPA or a slate of extracurriculars — is key to a child’s success, how to nourish it in children, and why it will give them an advantage as they grow.
“Parents don’t realize you can cultivate empathy,” she notes. “Their mouths open when I begin to cite the research that shows we can cultivate it. Then they begin to open up and say, ‘I just thought it was a temperament,’ ‘I thought just girls can be empathic,’ or ‘I thought it was birth order’ — everything but realizing they can make a difference in their kids’ lives.”
Borba’s research shows that empathy is sought by employers and highly correlated with leadership. It can also make a child more popular, help them have healthier relationships, and even live longer, she says. Backed by research, UnSelfie offers 300 practical, age-by-age ways to cultivate empathy in your child and help them practice it.
“It’s not a program or an app,” she says. “It’s finding simple little ways to weave it in [everyday life].”
Given that empathy is not hard-wired, Borba is on a mission to show practical, proven ways parents can grow and nurture it in children via nine social-emotional habits.
And sobering research shows her advice couldn’t have come at a better time. The combination of today’s helicopter parenting (overscheduling, interfering, and success at all costs), pop culture (reality TV), and technology (social media and selfies, selfies, selfies) have combined to deliver a 58% increase in narcissism and a 40% drop in teen empathy, resulting in stressed-out kids who focus solely on themselves and their achievements.
Borba, a mother of three who holds a doctorate in educational psychology and counseling from the University of San Francisco, says the idea for the book sprung from a research project on evil. While overseas teaching empathy on U.S. Army bases, she took trips to infamous concentration camp sites Dachau and Auschwitz. Other research trips took her to Rwanda, Armenia, and the Cambodian Killing Fields.
“I began to see, in every one of these places I went to, there were absolutely incredible stories of altruistic rescuers,” she says. “But when you read the research on how they became a rescuer or altruist, all they said was, ‘It was how I was raised.’”
Borba discovered “How I was raised” equated to “I watched my parents and acted like them.”
“It was what was modeled,” she adds. “The first thing we have to look at is, what are we modeling? If the kids had only our behavior to watch, ‘What would they catch?’ is a scary question. Kindness, compassion, moral courage — all those habits in UnSelfie — are best taught by not telling a kid, but showing them.”
Another tenet became clear: Empathetic behavior was expected. Altruists’ statements ran from “My parents expected me to be kind,” and “They expected me to reach out and help another,” to “If I didn’t go help that little girl who was crying, I’d get in trouble.”
“You look at now, what’s the first question we ask kids when they get home, ‘What’d you get on the test?’” Borba notes.
When she’s not appearing on major media outlets — from CNN and Good Morning America, to Dateline and The View, Borba speaks at parenting events, and says the No. 1 question she gets is, “Is it too late to teach my child empathy?”
“It’s always easier when you start young, but it’s never too late,” she assures.
For the smaller set, the solution is simple: “There is very clear research that one of the best vehicles for boosting empathy is a sandbox,” Borba says. “Unstructured play. It’s where a child learns face-to-face connections, turn taking, how to identify emotions in another.”
While school-age children are beyond a sandbox, their need for unstructured playtime — and a loose schedule — is just what the doctor ordered.
“Overscheduling is a big issue,” she says. And in addition to a slate of activities keeping families on the go nonstop, the majority of those commitments are adult-directed, structured, and with no downtime, leading to stressed-out kids.
“When the stress builds up, empathy dials down, because you can’t feel for others when you’re in stress mode yourself,” she says. “We help our kids practice everything but empathy, and empathy is a skill that needs to be practiced. They’re very good at violin. They’re fabulous at school; in fact we’re raising the smartest generation on record. GPAs and SAT scores continue to go up, but what’s lying dormant is practicing the other half.”
Technology strikes again
Another frequent culprit in the parenting space — technology — rears its head again, as kids’ preferences for tech over people has greatly contributed to the empathy epidemic.
“We’re raising a generation of kids who say and admit they’d rather text than talk,” she says. “Common Sense Media says they’re plugged in about 9 hours a day. Research says they’re actually plugged in more, on average, than they are sleeping. The more you face a screen, the less likely you are to learn emotional literacy. Reading facial expressions, hearing voice tones, watching body language — you can’t learn that facing a screen. That is a concern, that we’re not finding enough time just to build face-to-face conversations and connections, so the gateway to empathy and emotional literacy takes a ding.”
In a world obsessed with numerical measures of success, such as grades, SAT scores, or GPA, Borba says parents can build their child’s empathy muscles every day in just a few minutes.
“Weave in opportunities so that both sides of the report card matter. You can do that. It’s just being a little bit more intentional and finding everyday moments,” she says. “Just take one or two ideas and start slowly implementing them. Keep doing them just a few minutes every day, and what will happen is it not only changes your child, it changes your parenting. Parents are saying they’re becoming much more empathetic as an adult, and there’s nothing more powerful as a parenting skill than being empathetic as a parent to your child. You’ll find your own relationship with your kids enhancing.”
Borba’s nine habits build on each other, so parents and children should begin with Habit 1: teaching emotional literacy, the ability to understand and recognize the feelings of oneself and others. The book, for example, outlines several simple ways parents can help build a child’s emotional literacy a little each day, from reading books about feelings with little ones to teaching school-age kids how to decode and interpret simple body language and nonverbal cues.
“Getting rid of 1 hour of plugged-in time a day or turning off the TV for a half hour can be enough to open up enormous opportunities,” she says. “It’s a habit that can be exercised, like math or reading.”