Five years ago, I first encountered the phenomenal Dr. Michele Borba, a parenting expert and bestselling author of more than twenty-two books. We connected because I was in the process of writing a book about bullying, and Michele was one of the experts I interviewed.
During that summer of 2011, we spoke several times on the phone, and I was struck by Michele’s vast knowledge, warm personality, and – most of all – her instant supportiveness. In today’s world, where many professional women view other women working in the same field with a competitiveness that borders on hostility, Michele embraced me, even though our topics went hand-in-hand.
Why? Why was Michele so quick to help? Quite simply, it is because Michele is one of the most empathetic people I have ever met. She is focused not on herself but on how she can help others. So, it came as no surprise that Michele has synthesized her life’s work in a masterful new book called Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed In Our All-About-Me World.
Michele has traveled far and wide to study practices of empathy and the horrific results of a lack of empathy. Among other places, she visited an amazing camp that brings together young Palestinians and young Israelis, with the goal of teaching them to see each other as human beings instead of as stereotypes. In Unselfie, she shared the following conversation from her visit to this camp:
“I had beliefs that were in my mind since I was young and I couldn’t accept the other side,” said a camper from Palestine. “But then I realized that they [Israelis] have peaceful people just like us. . . . I believe that at the end of the day, we are all humans.”
That moment confirmed thirty years of research and touring the world for answers. Empathy can be instilled, and it is composed of teachable habits that can be developed, practiced, and lived. Empathy is what lays the foundation for helping children live one essential truth: We are all humans who share the same fears and concerns, and deserve to be treated with dignity.”
The problem with our current society, as Michele explores in Unselfie, is that today’s teens are 40% less empathetic than teens were 30 years ago, and one of the main reasons is today’s self-absorption epidemic, which she coins the Selfie Syndrome. It’s a fascinating concept that makes perfect sense. I’ll let Michele tell you more in her own words about her work, and then I’ll share some thoughts about how a lack of empathy plays a critical role in the outrage around the lenient sentencing of Stanford rapist Brock Turner:
WHAT IS THE “SELFIE SYNDROME?”
I call this new self-absorbed craze the Selfie Syndrome which is all about self-promotion, personal branding, and self-interest at the exclusion of others’ feelings, needs, and concerns. It’s permeating our culture and slowly eroding our children’s character. Self-absorption kills empathy, the foundation of humanity, and why we must get kids to switch their focus from “I, Me, My, Mine” to “We, Us, Our, Ours.”
HOW DOES THE SELFIE SYNDROME HARM KIDS?
The me-centered culture is doing irreparable harm to today’s young people. Today’s college students are now 40 percent lower in empathy levels than three decades ago, and in the same period, narcissism has increased 58 percent. Peer cruelty is increasing and starting at younger ages. Today’s kids appear to have weaker moral identity and an increase in cheating so they are less likely to consider other’s concerns. We see a rise in a culture of bullying, cheating and unhappiness. One in five middle school students contemplate suicide as a solution to peer cruelty, and 70% of college kids admit to cheating in class. As anxiety increases, empathy wanes: it’s hard to feel for others when you’re in “survival mode.” One-third of all college students report having felt so depressed that they had trouble functioning.
DOES PARENTING MAKE A DIFFERENCE ON THEIR KIDS’ EMPATHY?
The one certainty I learned in all my classroom visits is that empathy can be instilled. Though our children are hardwired to care, they don’t come out of the womb empathetic, just like they aren’t born knowing that 2 + 2 = 4 or who the president of the United States is. And it’s a talent that kids can cultivate and improve, like riding a bike or learning a foreign language.
BUT WHY SHOULD WE WANT OUR KIDS TO EMPATHIZE?
For starters, the latest science says that the ability to empathize affects our kids’ future health, wealth, authentic happiness, relationship satisfaction, and ability to bounce back from adversity. It promotes kindness, prosocial behaviors, and moral courage, and it is an effective antidote to bullying, aggression, prejudice, and racism. Empathy also prepares kids for the global world, and gives them a job market boost. In today’s world, empathy equals success, and it’s what I call the Empathy Advantage that will give our children the edge they need to live meaningful, productive, and happy lives and thrive in a complex new world.
WHAT MADE YOU BECOME INTERESTED IN EMPATHY?
The moment I realized how vital it is to cultivate empathy was when I visited the Cambodian Killing Fields outside Phnom Penh more than a decade ago. It shook me to my core. All I could think about was what causes such inhumanity and how to stop it. I began a decade-long journey to find the answer and visited sites of unfathomable horrors: Dachau, Auschwitz, Armenia, and Rwanda. I learned that a common cause of genocide was always a complete lack of empathy for fellow human beings. I also studied holocaust rescuers and discovered that early experiences that are seeped in warmth, model kindness, and stress “You will be kind” are key to reducing cruelty. Each role helped me discover powerful but simple ways parents, teachers, counselors, and communities can cultivate empathy and raise humanness.
HOW DID YOU DISCOVER THE HABITS THAT GIVE EMPATHY ADVANTAGE?
I combed research and read memoirs of Nobel Peace prize winners and found that empathy is composed of nine teachable habits that can be developed, practiced, and lived: Emotional Literacy, Moral Identity, Perspective Taking, Moral Imagination, Self-Regulation, Practicing Kindness, Collaboration, Moral Courage, and Altruistic Leadership. With practice, those competencies and skills become habits that our children will use for a lifetime to maintain their caring capacities. Those same habits are not only crucial to developing empathy but also for boosting resilience, well-being, academic success, mental health and purposeful living.
As Michele writes in Unselfie, “Bullying is learned, but it can also be unlearned, and cultivating empathy is our best antidote. If you can imagine a victim’s pain, causing that suffering is a near impossible feat.”
I’ve thought quite a bit about this concept of empathy in the past few days, as a statement written by a victim of campus rape has gone viral. In her raw, heartbreaking words, the victim explains how her rapist, a privileged Stanford underclassman named Brock Turner, was able to brutally violate her because he refused to see her as a person.
In the aftermath of the rape, his actions and those of his family and his attorney have continued to be all about self-preservation. His attorney worked to portray the victim as an object, so that the judge wouldn’t empathize with her pain, and it worked, because the sentencing was a joke. Even now, as the public roars in fury about this case, the rapist won’t take accountability for his crimes. But the victim has used her voice to show that she is a person, a human being, and her powerful statement has elicited an outpouring of empathy from the Internet.
How do we prevent the raising of kids such as Brock Turner? We cultivate empathy and value it above GPAs, SATs and Olympic swimming times. We turn toward resources such as Unselfie to help us figure it out, and we do the best we can to see the world through the eyes of the diverse and unfamiliar people around us.
In 2014, I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Michele Borba in person, because we were both speaking at the Hero Roundtable Conference in Flint, Michigan. We spent the entire conference glued together, kindred spirits, giggling and talking and swapping stories. It was during that visit that she was finalizing the publishing plans for Unselfie, and I’ve waited two long years to see the spectacular results. I was not disappointed.
And as an adoptive mom – particularly of a middle schooler! - I find that empathy is a critical parenting skill. To successfully raise an adopted child, empathy is what helps me make sense of behaviors and actions that can drive me to madness. Just when I am at the limit of my patience, I step outside of myself and try to imagine what my child is feeling, what her birth family is feeling, and suddenly things make sense, and my frustration melts.
So empathy helps us all.
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