UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World

Teens are less empathetic today than 30 years ago. This author calls this the Selfie Syndrome and pinpoints how to avoid the empathy crisis.

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Karsen: From the Parents Club, I’m Karsen Kolnicki. This is your briefing.


Karsen: Today, we’re discussing UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. Written by Dr. Michele Borba.

Teenagers today are forty percent less empathetic than they were thirty years ago. The good news is empathy is a trait that can be taught and nurtured. In this title, the author explains what parents and educators must do to combat the growing empathy crisis among children today.

Karsen: Vincent Phamvan on the key takeaways [pause] and what you need to know.


Karsen: Vincent, what’s the benefit of children having high levels of empathy?

Vincent: Dr. Michele Borba is an educational psychologist who has spoken to over a million people about child development. When empathetic children really thrive, the author refers to this as the Empathy Advantage.

And the recent studies reveal that empathetic children are healthier, happier, and more successful than their more self-centered peers.

Karsen: That’s great! So the next logical question would be, “Why do children today have less empathy than thirty years ago?”

Vincent: The short answer is that we live in a different world today. The word “selfie” was voted the word of the year in 2014 by Oxford dictionary when usage of the word increased by 17,000 percent in a year.

But this same obsession with taking photos of ourselves is related to our current society where ego and competition are the center of our worlds, and the center of our attention.

Psychologists today for the most part agree that empathy is on the decline, and youth narcissism is on the rise.

Karsen: That’s really unfortunate, what have researchers found in this trend?

Vincent: Well, one psychologist at the University of Michigan looked at 72 behavioral studies of college students over three decades. They found that students today are 40 percent less empathetic than students thirty years ago. They saw high levels of selfishness, inflated sense of self-importance, and a much higher need for admiration.

Another interesting data point is a Gallup poll in the 1950s, where only 12 percent of teenagers agreed with the statement, “I am very important.” Today, the same question results in over 80 percent of teenagers agreeing with the statement.

Karsen: Are we seeing this change the behavior of our youth?

Vincent: Yes, the biggest unfortunate impact has been the raise in bullying among school children. When children bully others, they dehumanize their victims and are unable to see life from their perspective.

When we see high rates of bullying, this is a strong indicator of decreasing empathy.

Karsen: Haven’t children always been mean to other children though?

Vincent: Yes, that’s true, but recent studies have found that bullying has reached an all-time high. One study showed a 52-percent increase in just four years, while another showed that children even as young as three years old were engaged in bullying.

Karsen: That’s really unfortunate.

Vincent: It really is. Even sadder is that one survey showed that one out of every five middle schoolers said they had considered suicide because of peer cruelty.

The good news though is that just because kids today are more self-centered than previous generations, they don’t have to stay this way as they grow up.

Karsen: How do parents help kids develop empathy?

Vincent: Well, Borba says that it’s normal for infants and toddlers to require years of experience before they can read body language in other humans. However, as a parent, you can coach your children as they learn.

The first technique is by using face-to-face contact to show kids emotional signs. Many children and teens misread these gestures, which can cause unnecessary pain.

Karsen: What’s an example of how to help coach them?

Vincent: Well, you could clarify your own body language by saying something like, “don’t worry, I’m not angry. I’m just tired. If I rub my eyes, you’ll know I’m tired.”

The second technique is to use books and movies to teach kids about emotion. So while you’re watching TV or a movie together with the sound on mute, you can turn it into a game by guessing how the actors feel.

Karsen: That’s a great idea for how to teach children about body language.

Vincent: It really is, and books can be great as well. If the main character in the story expresses an emotion, you can ask your child, “how can you tell he’s excited?” or “have you ever felt this way?”

This will expose them to different words like “confident,” “eager,” and “disappointed.” The goal is to go beyond the simple emotions of just happy and sad.

Karsen: It sounds like when you use emotional words when speaking to your children and sharing your own feelings, it’s a great way to build up their emotional literacy.

Vincent: Exactly. Kids can learn empathy when they walk in another person’s shoes, so to speak. Children who understand the perspective of others have more friends and closer relationships than self-absorbed children. It also helps them resolve conflicts and stand up for victims.

Karsen: What are the other benefits of the Empathy Advantage later on in life?

Vincent: Well, the research shows that these traits are linked to more favorable life outcomes. On average, children with empathy see better job opportunities, higher salaries, and higher education levels than those without.

Karsen: So what’s an exercise that you can use to gain the Empathy Advantage?

Vincent: Let’s say that you have two children who get into an disagreement, and both of them are asking you to take their side.

Instead of picking a side, you could ask each child what they think the other child will say about the situation. By asking this question, it encourages both children to learn to see the situation through the other child’s point of view.

Karsen: I could see how that’d definitely help build empathy. Are there any other tips from the author?

Vincent: Yes, another tip was to use props and role play. So for instance, you could put on a costume or prop—like a baseball cap or stethoscope—and ask the child to guess who’s wearing the objects and what they think about life. Specifically asking about the person’s fears, hopes and dreams.

This also works when your child bullies someone else. You could say something like, “this is Bobby’s baseball cap. You be Bobby and I’ll be you.” Then you can act out a scene where you’re mean to Bobby. Most children will walk away from this role play understanding how painful it is to be bullied.

Karsen: That seems like it would be more effective than merely asking the child how they think Bobby might feel. When a child gets worked up over something, what’s the best way to calm them down?

Vincent: One of the suggestions from the book was actually to foster self-regulation and social behavior through meditation and mindfulness.

Karsen: So meditation isn’t just for adults.

Vincent: Right, if you think about it, it can actually be beneficial for someone of any age. And for children, the author says that it’s a great way to enhance their self-regulation because it helps children practice calming themselves down and shifting their focus to something else. And it gives them the skills to cope with a stressful situation like someone else teasing them.

There was a 2013 study that showed that elementary school students showed better self-control and increased levels of respect for others when they practiced mindfulness.

Another study in 2015 showed that fourth and fifth graders were kinder, more helpful, better at regulating stress, more optimistic, and better at math when they practiced mindfulness.

Karsen: How does the author suggest starting mindfulness practices with kids?

Vincent: One simple way is called the candles and flowers exercise. This is where you have your child imagine smelling a flower and then blowing out a candle.

The goal is just to visualize and control your breathing. But by turning this into a kid-friendly game, it can help them start meditation practices.

Another way is to fill a jar with water and glitter. By having the child shake it, they can watch the swirling glitter settle. This usually has a calming effect. Then, you can use this to explain that sometimes people can get agitated, but just like the jar of glitter, they can find ways of calming themselves down.

Karsen: When kids are at school, what are different ways that parents can encourage healthy relationships with peers?

Vincent: Well, Borba talks in the book about an example from the 1970s in Austin, when latino, black, and white kids were abruptly integrated into the same class. One of the teachers came up with an exercise called jigsaw learning, where children are split up into multiethnic groups to prepare presentations on different topics. Each child had responsibility for researching a different part of the project, but the group’s success was dependent on each person’s contribution.

After a few different lessons using the jigsaw learning style, the race riots calmed down and kids from different backgrounds even started playing together at recess.

Karsen: So the takeaway here is that children who listen to each other’s experiences and strive for shared goals can break across different subgroups.

Vincent: Absolutely.  There are many ways that children can prevent bullying. Parents and teachers should definitely protect victims of bullying, but children can also be part of the solution.

85 percent of bullying happens when there’s no adult around, but when peers intervene, 57 percent of the time, the bullying stops within ten seconds.

Karsen: For kids, there’s a real stigma around being a tattletale, so how do you overcome this?

Vincent: That’s right, no one likes a snitch. However, it's important to educate children on the difference between telling on their friends and reporting injury and abuse.

You may not want your child to intervene in a physical fight, since that could be dangerous, but you can teach them to console a victim afterwards. Or in the moment, they can get help or tell a trusted adult what happened later.

Karsen: Positive affirmations were another way to encourage this behavior from children, right?

Vincent: Oh, that’s right. There was a school in Alberta, Canada that had their students make courage affirmations. When students would say, “I dare to do what I believe is right.” Saying this outloud would encourage them to build the confidence to stand up for others.

Karsen: Overall, are there ways to encourage children to do good and care for others?

Vincent: One of the best ways is to instill a growth mindset. This is where you teach them that their effort and perseverance can impact outcomes in life. It’s not just their natural ability that makes them intelligent, fit, or empathetic.

After your children embrace this mindset, you can introduce them to social issues and encourage them to seek out solutions. When you discuss these with your child, ask their opinions and how they think they can help locally.

One incredible story was from an eight year old named Vivienne Harr. She saw a photograph of Nepalese child slaves in a newspaper and decided to learn more and try to help. So she set up a lemonade stand, and instead of charging a certain price, she asked customers to “give what’s in their hearts.” In the end, this got a lot of attention and she raised over $100,000 for antislavery organizations.

Karsen: That’s so inspiring. It sounds like the key takeaway from this book is that children today live in a self-absorbed culture that makes it hard to understand the emotions of others. They don’t have to be this way though. When parents and teachers help children learn to understand empathy by teaching them about emotions, it can impact their behavior, actions, and help them achieve the Empathy Advantage.


Karsen: That’s it for your briefing. I’m Karsen Kolnicki. See you next time.


Teens today are forty percent less empathetic than they were thirty years ago. Why is a lack of empathy—which goes hand-in-hand with the self-absorption epidemic Dr. Michele Borba calls the Selfie Syndrome—so dangerous? First, it hurts kids’ academic performance and leads to bullying behaviors. Also, it correlates with more cheating and less resilience. And once children grow up, a lack of empathy hampers their ability to collaborate, innovate, and problem-solve—all must-have skills for the global economy.

In UnSelfie Dr. Borba pinpoints the forces causing the empathy crisis and shares a revolutionary, researched-based, nine-step plan for reversing it.

The good news? Empathy is a trait that can be taught and nurtured. Dr. Borba offers a framework for parenting that yields the results we all want: successful, happy kids who also are kind, moral, courageous, and resilient. UnSelfie is a blueprint for parents and educators who want to kids shift their focus from I, me, and mine…to we, us, and ours.

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