Teaching our children to care is one of the most important responsibilities we have as parents. Sometimes, however, it seems like the world is working against our efforts toward this goal! When violence, poverty, and bigotry fill the news, when our culture emphasizes self-promotion over contribution, how do we teach our kids to have empathy for others?
Michele Borba’s new book, UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, offers some answers. Citing research about increases in narcissism among teens in this generation compared to earlier generations, she also offers a hopeful message that parents can have a positive impact.
Although the book is filled with many examples of kids doing extraordinary acts of kindness, such as starting a charity, the main strength of the book lies in the many ideas for cultivating day-to-day kindness. Here are a few of Dr. Borba’s key suggestions:
1. Be friendly.
“Just being with people in a friendly setting can increase your empathy toward others and make you want to be kinder,” Borba writes. The simple act of offering a warm greeting for a returning family member, a neighbor, or a cashier at the grocery store spreads a bit of kindness and shows our kids that other people deserve respect.
2. Read together.
Good fiction is an opportunity to imagine the world from someone else’s viewpoint. Stories offer a compelling glimpse into another person’s thoughts and feelings. They can break down barriers by helping children understand and relate to people in circumstances different from their own. Reading with our children or discussing the books they’ve read can help deepen their perspective-taking abilities.
3. Play unplugged games.
Face-to-face games, particularly strategy games such as chess, give kids practice in reading people’s emotions and predicting how they will react. Playing together also deepens children’s friendships.
4. Give kids meaningful opportunities to care for others.
When children can help others in meaningful ways, they can experience a “helper’s high.” They can also see that it’s possible for them to have a significant positive impact on others. Many schools offer opportunities for older students to tutor younger ones. Doing chores for an elderly neighbor, working with others to clean up a local area, or volunteering in a soup kitchen as a family are other ways that kids can help and see the impact of their kindness.
5. Encourage kids to view themselves as helpers.
Research shows that children are more likely to help others when we give them the opportunity to “be a helper” rather than just to “do a helpful thing.” Comments such as “You’re the kind of person who will go out of the way to help someone in need!” guide children toward seeing kindness as part of their identity.
Borba, M. (2016). Unselfie: Why empathetic kids succeed in our all-about-me world. New York: Touchstone