What do kids need to be happy and successful? Few parents who ask educational psychologist Michele Borba that question expect her one-word answer: empathy.
“The trait that allows us to feel what others are feeling has the reputation of being touchy-feely, but new research reveals that empathy is far from ‘soft,’” says the award-winning author and mom of three. “Empathy is core to everything that makes a society civilized and makes our children better people.” It’s also, she adds, a key predictor of which kids will thrive and succeed.
Borba’s eye-opening and practical new book, UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, provides a sorely-needed counterpoint to the usual advice on getting ahead (through personal branding! competing to win!). As part of our Parenting Toolkit series, we asked her how to build empathy—and about her favorite tools for raising great kids:
A skill every preschooler should have that’s seldom taught: How to shake hands. I love when a preschooler knows how to greet people and shake hands—with firm shake, eye contact, and a hello. The technique actually is a combination of great people skills, from helping build assertiveness to making eye contact—all the seeds of empathy.
A skill every school-age kid should have that’s seldom taught: How to solve a problem. Knowing the beginning steps to conflict resolution helps kids build self-reliance (and not depend on us), reduces squabbles, boosts relationships, enhances perspective taking—and reduces bullying. The American Psychological Association did a review of hundreds of studies on bullying in the U.S. and Europe to see which strategies are most effective. They found that both bullies and victims lack problem-solving skills. Teach it!
A skill every teenager should have that’s seldom taught: Deep breathing to relax, or any strategy that works to calm down. Navy SEALs, the most elite force in our services, passed this and other strategies on to me—like positive-self-talk (“I’m calm and in control,” “I’ll be okay”) and mental rehearsal (reviewing an activity in your mind repeatedly so that when the real situation happens, your body has a less stressful response). Today’s teens are the most stressed out generation on record.
My 3 favorite children’s books of all time: Only three?!
The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes. Brilliant! I’ve used it over and over to boost empathy in the classroom.
Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White. Because my children adored it.
Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. Sigh…because I read it and read it and read it and still love it.
Family movies I love: I can think of four that illustrate empathy beautifully:
“ET.” You have to feel with him and where he’s coming from—and those kids!
“Remember the Titans.” That coach’s speech about joining together as one!
“Inside Out.” Fabulous for discussing emotional literacy—you can’t be empathetic unless you can read the other person’s emotions.
“To Kill a Mockingbird.” As Atticus says, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Still the world’s best quote.
A great game for building empathy: Chess! Watching 6-year-olds in Yerevan, Armenia, play chess, I saw how powerful it is in teaching perspective taking. I didn’t understand a word of Armenian but could see children try to size each other’s next move by reading their emotional expressions. Talk about a fabulous way to boost emotional literacy! Chess is now required by the country for every Armenian student—not to boost math and science scores but to help their children acquire good character and perspective-taking skills. Other good games for boosting emotional literacy: Monopoly, Checkers, Old Maid, Go Fish!
Family tradition I wish we’d started sooner: The red plate. My girlfriend gave it to me when the kids were starting school. We loved celebrating any family member’s “success” (defined as trying your hardest or doing something new) by serving his meal on the red plate. To this day, my grown sons still want to know if they get the “red plate.”
A family ritual worth starting: Relaxed family dinners—where each person gets to share how they feel about a particular issue, especially while discussing news events—can really build empathy. What happens is you grasp which causes concern a child most, and then you can use that information to encourage them to do something to “right the wrong.” It can be very powerful. I interviewed dozens of kids for UnSelfie who I considered to be “change-makers”—children who are committed to changing a social injustice of some kind. Most said their families discussed the news and it helped them figure out what they stood for.An underrated family activity: Doing something spur of the moment—unplanned—like sitting on the grass and just enjoying one another’s company and watching the clouds. Because everyone is so relaxed, the conversations are wonderful.
Best family dinner conversation starter: “So what was the funniest thing that happened today?” I could always count on one of the boys to come up with something hysterical, and it would make the whole dinner be light and relaxed.
The books I recommend to every parent I know: If you have young children, I love Harvey Karp. The Happiest Toddler on the Block has just plain wonderful strategies—and they work. I also adore Jim Trelease’s Read Aloud Handbook. Every parent should own it to learn all the best books kids love to read. I read almost every book listed with my sons. Fabulous selections!
A question kids always ask me that would surprise their parents: “Why don’t my parents believe me when I tell them how stressed I am?” (Or that I’m bullied). They also say, “The advice they give me never works, like ‘It’ll get better tomorrow’ or ‘You’re making too big a deal out of it.’ I just wish they’d listen and tell me what to do to make it better.”
A question parents always ask me: “Isn’t empathy just a matter of temperament or DNA—can it really be nurtured?” Empathy is a quality that MUST be taught—it’s not an inborn trait or a nice add-on to our kids’ development. It’s a talent kids can cultivate and improve, like riding a bike or learning a foreign language. We must widen our definition of success so it includes both sides of the report card.
An influence on my parenting that might surprise people: KIDS! The best parenting tips I’ve received always came from kids. I’ve spoken to hundreds of children on over five continents—in Colombia, Mexico, Armenia, Malaysia, Turkey, Canada, Korea, New Zealand, Rwanda—the list goes on—and they have the same worries, hopes, and dreams everywhere. Kids are always honest and give the best advice. They’re spot-on because they get to the core of an issue and speak such truth.
The best parenting advice I ever got: “Just listen to your heart. No one knows your children better than you. Follow your instincts.” From my mom—and she was right.
3 things (large or small) I really wish all parents knew:
- Empathy is made up of habits. And the best way to teach any habit is to SHOW it to our kids—not TELL them. Kids learn by watching and copying, not by lectures.
- Don’t mistake a child’s temperament or personality for his or her empathetic capabilities. Rosa Parks, Gandhi, and Mother Teresa considered themselves to be introverts but were highly empathic and changed the world.
- Empathy can be stretched—it’s like a muscle. It just takes practice. Practice, practice until the child can do it without you. We seem to practice everything but helping our kids become human beings. We cart them to tennis lessons, violin, theatre, debate, tutors—but put very little time into enhancing our children’s “human side.”
My definition of a great kid: A child with a heart who tries his or her best.
My motto as a mom: “There’s no rewind button on parenting.” And “Love each for who he is.”