When you ask a parent which qualities they want to see in their child, many will list smart, confident, athletic, and kind at the top of their list. But often the word “empathetic” is not mentioned. Internationally recognized parenting expert Michele Borba wants parents to understand the important role that empathy plays in raising children. In her book, UnSelfie Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About Me-World, Borba makes astounding connections between empathy and successful children.
Borba believes that our society consistently misinterprets how crucial empathy is. “As soon as we understand the real facts we can understand the real idea of empathy. Parents think that their kids are going to be nice or not nice, that it’s all locked up in their DNA, and they don’t realize it can be cultivated and we can make a difference regardless of age,” says Borba. “Parents categorize children as soft and don’t recognize the importance of empathy.”
The concept of empathy includes the element of self-control, and it is an important predictor of a child’s future wealth, health, and happiness. In her book, Borba introduces the nine essential habits to raise an empathetic child. One of the habits is self-regulation, which is the ability to manage emotions. Borba suggests that parents should teach their children mindful waiting games to help them learn to be patient. Ideas include teaching children to sing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” while they’re waiting their turn, or to use mindful breathing techniques.
Ultimately, parents must teach their children to think in a “we” lens versus a “me” lens. Every parent wants a likable child and a kid who thinks “we” not “me” is going to have more friends. “Children who think “we” not “me” are happier children. Instead of focusing on the bigger picture, parents often give their children stuff and believe that’s the solution. Kids who are we thinkers are less racist, [have] lower overall prejudices, [are] more open-minded, and more employable,” says Borba.
The Internet and technology also have an impact, so parents should recognize the advantages and disadvantages of it. “You don’t learn empathy from facing a screen—and the kids these days would much rather text than talk,” says Borba. Her advice to parents is to take a “reality check” to identify how often their children are plugged in. She encourages parents to look at their own technology usage because, according to Borba’s studies, 60% of children say that their parents are too plugged in. Create some unplugged times within your household that will help promote more face-to-face connections. For example, a family meal should never be interrupted by technology. Make family members put their phones and tablets into a basket and implement the rule that they’re not allowed to get them back until after family time. Of course, parents will get resistance, but parents must take control.
However, it’s crucial that parents also recognize the ways technology can be utilized as a positive outlet. Borba recommends that parents use Skype or FaceTime as a tool to teach their children emotional literacy. “The first habit in UnSelfie is emotional literacy which is the ultimate gateway to empathy,” says Borba. Children can identify facial expressions and use that as a way to curtail their own voice and conversations.
Another important factor that contributes to a child’s empathy and overall development is the kind of praise they receive. Borba encourages parents to analyze how they’re praising their children and the reasoning behind the praise. “Your child is able to pick up their values. Therefore, it’s important that the behavior matches how they see themselves. The explanation is a key factor and should produce a caring mindset. There are a number of ways a parent can praise their children so that it is effective,” says Borba.
In a day and age where a selfie can be altered, cropped, and filtered, it’s imperative that parents lay a foundation for their children that is built on good values—one of those being empathy. Our children must be able to move past their own image and see what is possible in the world. If parents change their child’s focus from the image in the mirror toward the world surrounding them, they’ll discover a much brighter future and a defining role in life.