In her book “UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World,” educational psychologist and parenting expert Dr. Michele Borba lays out nine ways to raise kids who are more caring, compassionate, and concerned about others.
Emotional literacy, says Borba, is the gateway to empathy. “Empathy is feeling with someone,” she said at a recent event.
She recommends talking about emotions with your kids. Give them the words to describe their emotions, and learn how to read them in other people. Encourage them to speak openly about their feelings.
When we praise children, we tend to focus on their cognitive, social and physical strengths. But equally important, are their moral accomplishments. “We’re also not as intentional as we used to be, when cultivating empathy,” she said. Instead of “What kind thing did you do?” the focus is often on “What did you get?” in terms of a grade.
According to Borba, parents discipline their kids an average of fifty times a day. Many of those actions requiring discipline are related to the child being inconsiderate. Borba calls these “empathy-stretching opportunities.” Simply put, try to get your kid to imagine themselves in the other shoes. Did they say something mean to their friend that upset them? How would they feel if the tables were turned? How can they make it up to their friend?
Don’t underestimate the power of a parable. Or, in this case, any kind of book. There are countless examples of books featuring characters faced with moral dilemmas. Borba recommends reading books over digital entertainment options, to develop a child’s imagination.
Emotional self regulation can be a challenge for both kids and adults. When we feel stressed of angry it can trigger a physical reaction. Borba said teaching your kids to identify their “body alarms” let’s them know when they need to take a minute to decompress or do something calming, like deep breathing.
This may seem like an obvious one, but Borba has found that parents often focus on getting their kids to strive for achievement and success over cultivating their personality. “One of the best ways to build empathy is also having our kids see it in action,” Borba said.
There’s no ‘I’ in ’empathy.’ The hyper-competitiveness of today’s world reinforces an “I’m better than you” mentality in kids, which makes them less empathetic. Shift the focus from ‘me’ and ‘us,’ when it comes to school and your own family. Provide opportunities for them to collaborate with other kids and hold family meetings where you can problem solve together.
If kids see someone else being bullied, will they intervene? Do they know how to intervene? “What every child has told me that we’re failing to do,” Borba said, “is show them how.”
In “UnSelfie,” Borba says kids are growing up in a world that has become obsessed with celebrities who flaunt possessions, appearance and consumption over character values like compassion, charity and generosity.
Help kids become changemakers by giving them opportunities for leadership and emphasizing the importance of societal contribution.