Fall Book Club- Chapters 3 and 4

In this edition of our Book Club we will wrap up the first section of the book UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World by Michele Borba. We have covered the importance of this topic as we raise our children, as well as the first two practical steps in developing empathy- recognizing feelings and creating a moral identity. In this post we will look at the last two parts of developing empathy in children through helping them understand the needs of others and developing a moral imagination.
Borba begins Chapter 3 by helping us understand that empathy is developed not from worksheets or lectures, but from active, face-to-face experiences. Ultimately we want to help our children understand what it feels like to walk in another person’s shoes – what are their feelings, wants and needs compared to those of my own. Borba focuses on how we discipline children as one of the key tools in helping them empathize and understand their neighbor.
Discipline has always been a difficult and debated topic among parents, educators and anyone seeking to influence the next generation. I disagree with several of Borba’s conclusions about the effect of various discipline techniques, but nonetheless appreciate her approach to the topic. She suggests that we use “impact statements” to help kids internalize the value of caring for one another and form a strong moral identity that will grow with them through life’s difficulties. As a parent, Borba calls us to express our disappointment in our children’s behavior as it affects those around us.
These impact statements can help us to see our actions beyond just ourselves. She lists some practical ways to put this into practice: Call attention to uncaring, Assess how uncaring affects others, Repair the hurt and require reparations, Express disappointment and Stress caring Expectations. My only concern with this line of thinking is that we keep it in balance. We don’t want our children to become so others focused that they become dependent on what other’s think or motivated solely by others feelings. Scripture is clear that we are to love God with our whole heart and second to love our neighbor as ourselves. God is an empathetic God and desires for us to walk in that same light. However, we must not let people be our sole motivation. We need to see how we fall short of God’s design for creation and first move towards Him for forgiveness and guidance and then move towards others as we trust God for that direction. As we do so, God will be glorified as His people engage in biblical relationship building. I believe that this truth, coupled with the practical steps that Borba lays out, is a great foundation for truly learning to love and understand where others are coming from.
Chapter 4 moves into how to help kids develop a moral imagination and this chapter gets me excited! Borba focuses in on teaching this through literature. What better way to spend time with your kids than through reading! There are so many wonderful stories that engage kids’ imagination in general while also helping teach those valuable lessons of empathy and caring we so desperately want them to learn. The best part is the hard part is done – we simply bring those stories to our children and help them think through their meaning.
The argument for reading more often shouldn’t take much convincing these days given the staggering statistics about the time kids spend in front of a screen. The steady decline in our children’s ability to concentrate should push us to look for other ways to engage them. The struggle is how to get them to sit still and pay attention to a book – whether they are reading it or you are reading it together. This is where parents need to make some intentional, sometimes hard choices, about how their children and family use their time. Build in some quiet time – for reading, thinking, drawing – and participate with your children as much as possible. Look at a list of suggested reading for children at various age levels and if they aren’t reading those books at school, make a way for them to read them at home. Most importantly, talk about what you read and help them to see the lessons to be learned from these stories.
Borba gives some helpful cues to get these conversations started once you begin this reading challenge. Step 1 – Pose “What if” questions. What if you were that character? Would you have made a different choice? If that were you, what advice would you give? Asking good questions is the first step to helping kids internalize and embrace what they are hearing. Step 2 – Ask “How would you feel” questions. These questions can help your child reflect even further into understanding the character and how this can affect their life. Step 3 – Switch the Focus from “me” to “you”. Ask questions like “Imagine you are that character. How does she feel about being…” The goal in all of this is to help children imagine how someone else is thinking or feeling. Borba helps us to turn our thoughts from ourselves onto others through these types of questions.
As I considered these insights about teaching empathy, I realized that as a camp we are doing many of these already, but we most certainly have room to grow. Storytelling and reading are wonderful ways to spark imagination, wonder and empathy and we will be looking for ways to add that to our programming. Our devotional time in the evenings is one way we have used stories to help our girls think about their relationship with God and with each other.
Please let us know if you come across good books that would be a great addition to our library of camp resources or activities that we could add to our programming to continue to help build empathy in our girls. There is no question that our country is in desperate need for understanding from one another and we continue to pray that we would be a catalyst in bringing people together.