"Do you know what that feels like?" "Yes, I know what that feels like."
That exchange happens twice in the new movie Finding Dory, and each time it is a pivotal moment in the film. Don't worry, no spoilers here, just the recognition of the tremendous power of empathy.
Empathy is "seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another, and feeling with the heart of another," as Dr. Michele Borba said at a talk I attended last night.
Those movie scenes tug at the heartstrings of viewers because we know from our own experiences that the moments of connection that comes from empthy are extremely powerful.
Our kids, however, may be missing out on those powerful moments because there is an empathy crisis among today's youth, as Borba explains in her new book UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. She cites a study from the University of Michigan finding that empathy has decreased by 40% and narcissism has increased by 58% in incoming college freshmen over the past three decades.
Why is teaching kids empathy so important?
Empathy boosts resilience. It is the key to forming the healthy relationships that impact our kids' mental health. And empathy is and will be a key skill in the job market. Employers are looking for people who can connect with their clients, really understand the needs of consumers, and relate well to coworkers, bosses, and others in the workplace.
Empathy matters. And in UnSelfie, Borba makes a compelling argument for why it matters more than GPA.
Helping our kids do to be kind and develop a moral identity now will have a larger and longer impact on the rest of their life (and society as a whole) than anything they do to develop an Ivy League-worthy resume.
The effort that goes into those resumes and the pressure our kids feel are big reasons why this generation of kids is the most stressed out on record. The increase in stress and decline in empathy is related. "As stress builds, empathy wanes," Borba explains, saying that it's tough to empathize when you're in survival mode.
Simple coping skills like deep breathing and others that she describes in the book can help kids not only get through difficult moments, it helps keep empathy open.
"We have to build our kids from the inside out and focus on what triggers their hearts," she says.
The good news is that all humans are born with the capacity for empathy, and Borba explains that empathy is a muscle and like all muscles - the use it or lose it principle applies. The more you exercise your empathy muscle, the stronger it becomes.
"Empathy can be cultivated," Borba stressed. Regardless of temperament or age, kids can learn to be empathetic.
"We take our kids to so many practices - sports, music, etc. But do they practice being a good person?" Borba asked. "We are good at practicing everything but humanity."
UnSelfie focuses on nine essential habits that our kids need to grow and thrive in today's digital-driven, individualist society. They are Emotional Literacy, Moral Identity, Perspective Taking, Moral Imagination, Kindness, Collaboration, Self-regulation, Moral Courage, Compassionate Leadership. (Not coincidentally, that's one for each month of the academic year.)
At the end of each chapter she offers strategies for developing those habits and she codes them by age. I appreciated that she has a category specifically for tweens and teens and another for all ages. There are also categories for younger kids, so there's something for every member of the family. In all there are more than 500 tips and tools. Some are as simple as sharing your feelings emotions with your children.
Other tips include family movie night and suggestions for films about collaboration and sticking up for each other that are great conversation starters, reading novels together.
Some of those tips are ways to expanding your child's comfort zone and social circles so they can empathize with those who are not like them. The ability to do so is good for our kids, and for our world.
UnSelfie is a great guide for teaching kids empathy and will help shift their focus from "me" to "we," and when that happens, everyone benefits. After this week, we are all acutely aware of how critical it is to see the humanity in others, the power of kindness and how invaluable the helpers are.
You may also like this review of UnSelfie and how it relates to the Brock Turner case by my fellow ChicagoNow blogger Carrie Goldman: Unselfie, Empathy, the Brock Turner Case, and Parenting
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