I’ll never forget when, years ago in my counseling career, a young man in the community I where I worked committed a horrific, violent crime. But I also won’t forget a Wednesday evening about two years after the tragedy when his name came up at church–where I was leading teenagers in a discussion about their faith. We were working our way through the Ten Commandments, opening our minds and hearts to God’s moral blueprint.
Reflecting on the dignity God grants every human being while calling us to love our neighbor as ourselves, a beautiful sophomore girl lowered her head and began to weep.
She was remembering that young man, a peer of hers, who was now presumed to be incarcerated and very alone.
Instead of condemning him for the act he’d committed, the girl’s heart was drawn out of herself and into compassion for her former schoolmate. She realized she’d failed a potential friend.
The girl’s honesty that night broke things open in the room. It helped the rest of us in our folding chair circle reveal our hearts and disclose our own failures to be kind to kids who don’t fit in at school.
We wondered aloud about why it’s so easy to make fun of people different from us even though we know it’s wrong to mistreat them and we don’t even like ourselves when we join in the laughter.
We saw the impact of casual cruelty with fresh grief, and we resolved to pray for grace to do better in loving outsiders.
Social exclusion and peer cruelty are nothing new, but Michele Borba’s Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World has the research to show that a lack of empathy the hurt it causes are on the rise. Today’s teens are 40 percent less empathetic than adolescents were 40 years ago, a statistic that supports David Brooks’ concern in The Road to Character about the rising Culture of the Big Me.
The good news is there’s also a rise in empirical data showing what adults can do to help children and teens grow in empathy.
Borba, an internationally recognized educational psychologist, has written over 20 books on parenting, bully prevention and moral development in children. She’s assisted peacemaking and other outreach efforts around the world, from Africa and Israel to Nicaragua, Canada Great Britain and the United States.
Unselfie distills the insights of a compassion expert at the top of her game. Her book will help you up your game with the kids closest to you.
Borba identifies nine empathetic traits and offers a corresponding habit that can be developed through teaching and other strategies parents, teachers and caregivers can employ. Simply naming the traits concretizes our thinking on how to help children.
Empathetic children recognize feelings, have a moral identity, understand the needs of others, have a moral imagination, can keep their cool, practice kindness, stick their necks out and want to make a difference.
Unselfie is an age-specific goldmine of tips and techniques. Fresh from reflecting on what Dorothy Day’s autobiography reveals about the reading habits of a woman whose compassion allowed her to cofound a movement still reaching out to those most in need, Borba’s chapter on reading to cultivate empathy would have had my heart without all the science. But science sure helps make the case, revealing how reading literary fiction (as opposed to nonfiction or plot-driven popular novels) increases empathy in measurable ways.
Reading literature–even for short periods–can enhance empathy, and proof of that is showing up, not only on paper-and-pencil tests–but even in images of our brains!
And Borba won’t leave you alone to figure out how to get your child to read lit. Unselfie is rich in specific techniques any adult can adopt to help the young ones in their circle. (I was reminded of Law Professor Helen Alvaré, who once disclosed that she gives a copy of Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter to every girl under her influence on the day she turns sixteen.)
And Unselfie offers so much more. Borba shares what science says about how kindness benefits children, about how to teach self control and about how to raise a changemaker. She shares what science says about too much screen time (it increases our feelings of isolation and our ability to have meaningful conversations) and about how repeatedly witnessing violent acts through movies and violent video games can shrivel a compassionate heart. She even offers evidence that parental bad behavior at sporting events negatively affects children and teens.
But it was Chapter 8, “Empathetic Children Stick Their Necks Out” on promoting moral courage that brought the high school girl who regretted her cruel laughter to mind. Empathy might not have changed the outcome of her troubled peer’s life, but it would have changed each of them and offered comfort. Moral courage might have changed the peers around her. It might have strengthened their resolve to grow in kindness, perhaps even coming to know their classmate well enough to support him in seeking help.
Scientific findings can help us understand why some of us step in to help when we see someone hurting while others do not. That knowledge helps us intervene early with replacement behaviors that may change the involvement equation.
The problem is called “the bystander effect,” and researchers have actually measured the factors that keep most of us from stepping up. The amount of people presesent, for instance, lessens the feeling of individual responsibity, misunderstanding the situation and simply not knowing what to do are also reasons people remain on the sidelines. This research has helped advance the science of how to increase empathy and action in the future. Borba’s “age-by-age strategies” are more than worth the cost of the book.
Borba suggests we work at dispelling the “Superhero Myth” that exempts ordinary people like us from acting because we can’t identify with people who changed the world. Quite the contrary. Pee Wee Reese (who changed baseball by publically befriending Jackie Robinson when he became the first black player in the major leagues), Mahatma Ghandi (who was painfully shy as a child) and Rosa Parks (who saw herself as timid) are examples that can show kids “it only takes 20 seconds of insane courage” (as the father in We Bought a Zoo tells his son) to make something incredible happen.
Insane courage to do the right thing can be developed. Regret can bring resolution to reach out and make amends. The teens on that Wednesday evening saw their failure as an opportunity to change. This book can be used to increase the odds that more teens will do the right thing the first time.
Unselfie is the best book of its kind of I’ve read in a long time, and I’m grateful to my friend and counseling colleague who told me about this supremely helpful guide. It’s simply loaded with practical suggestions and examples of books, film, and real life heroes to support us in helping the next generation develop heroic hearts.
Michelle Borba calls empathy “the root of humanity.” It’s “the foundation that helps our children become good, caring people.” Empathy makes life worth living. We’re wired for each other.
Whether we think of the Ten Commandments, the Good Samaritain or the Golden Rule, it turns out that science is on the side of the Sacred.
If that warms your heart, you’re not alone.
Reads & Other Seeds
Unselfie recommends Carol McCloud’s “Bucket” books for children, and they’ve long been favorites in my own work with little ones. McCloud’s books were inspired by the Gallup Corporation’s How Full is Your Bucket? by Tom Rath and Donald Clifton. See Sparrowfare’s Need Evidence? Three Reasons to Increase Your Positive Speech.
More reviews of books for and about children are offered on Sparrowfare’s Fledgelingfare page.
Movie lovers! Check out Michele Borba’s 100 Movies for Kids 5 to 17 That Teach 9 Crucial Empathy Habits.
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