We are continuing our series on the book UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World and in this post we will look at the first 2 chapters of the book. Chapter 1 deals with the importance of helping kids recognize feelings and Chapter 2 addresses helping them develop a moral identity.
In the first chapter, author Michele Borba, highlights a school where young children spend time simply observing an infant and learning to pick up on how it feels by watching its facial expressions, sounds and general body language. The teacher explains that the need for learning to relate to each other is as important as learning to read and that’s why they choose to spend time working on those skills with the children. Borba also points out that tuning in to feelings is key to parenting well. Unfortunately, in our digitally consumed world, face to face time is diminished making it difficult, if not impossible, to recognize and understand each other’s feelings.
Teaching our children and ourselves to be empathetic and compassionate begins in the home with face-to-face contact. This requires intentional parental choices – carving out family time, unplugging from electronic devices, talking with each other and actively listening. Bringing back sit-down dinners is one of the easiest ways to facilitate communication and spend time together as a family.
Real, meaningful, emotion-charged personal experiences work best to help kids understand feelings. Things like observing babies, raising a puppy, tutoring other children, and spending time with grandparents are practical ways to help children practice observing how others feel and learning to respond.
Kids need a vocabulary to discuss emotions and guidance for using it. In the context of the family dinner, we can set the example by talking about our day and including how this made us feel. When we turn our focus toward our children, listening to them, and asking pointed questions about the feelings invoked by the events of their day, our children are encouraged to express their feelings. They also learn how to ask their own questions in a conversation. These skills are key to developing empathy and compassion.
Borba maintains that we discuss, explain, and encourage girls to share feelings far more than we do boys. Interesting thought. Has that been true in your experience?
In Chapter 2 she moves into discussing how to help develop a moral identity. Over the last 20 years the focus has been on building up children’s self-esteem. While this is important to some degree – we certainly don’t want to beat our children down to have no confidence or drive – but we have not kept this in balance and our children and culture are suffering as a result. Borba says that in trying to make them feel good, we focus on their cognitive, social, and physical feats. In doing so we overlook their moral accomplishments like compassion, generosity, thoughtfulness and concern for others. As a result, she says, over two-thirds of adolescents ranked their own personal happiness as more important than their goodness. This flies in the face to Biblical truth which says to love your neighbor as yourself* and to put others needs above your own**, but how do we develop this in our kids in a way that it is their mindset and not just us telling them to “play nice”?
Some practical advice Borba gives are laid out in 5 simple guidelines: pay attention to how your child responds to encouragement and look for signs that you could be overpraising; make sure to align the praise with a character trait – “you’re always so thoughtful – you’re a considerate person”; use nouns, not verbs – it creates a positive identity trait they are more likely to grab on to; focus on character, not behavior; finally – model it! Don’t expect your children to be compassionate, generous people if you are acting contrary to your words.
She also suggests setting some time apart to talk about this as a family and discuss what your core values are and what it would look like to live those out. We adopted a similar activity for camp the past two summers. Each cluster meets on the first day and decides what they want to get out of their time at camp. Then they list behaviors and attitudes that will help them accomplish these goals and those that will prevent them from experiencing these things. When a conflict does arrive, we go back to those guidelines that they set up and ask them if what they are doing is contributing to or taking away from their camp goals. It has made a huge difference in how they respond to one another and take ownership of their camp experience.
She lists several other practical ways to help build this mindset in your children and closes with the top five things to remember. 1. Moral identity can inspire empathy, activate compassion and motivate caring behavior. 2. To respond empathetically, kids must value other people’s thoughts and feelings. 3.Overpraising can make kids competitive, tear others down, and diminish empathy. 4. Entitling and “overvaluing” kids may increase narcissism and hamper moral identity. 5. If a child can imagine himself as a caring person, he is more likely to care about others.
I would add to spend time reading and discussing stories of real life and fictional characters who modeled this mindset. Spending time reading and praying through scripture is the foundation of all of this and should be an integral part of your family time together. If we truly want to see change in our children we must seek wisdom from God’s word and allow it to guide our hearts and minds to love God and love our neighbor.
I would love to know your thoughts as to how you have seen this develop in your children and to share ideas with others so we can all grow in our effort to teach our children the importance and value of having empathy.