Shaping "Unselfie" Kids

January 2020
Junior high kids all looking at smartphones

An Interview with Michele Borba, EdD

A former classroom and special education teacher, Michele Borba, EdD, is an internationally renowned educator, award-winning author, and parenting/ child expert recognized for her solu-tion-based strategies to strengthen children’s social-emotional intelligence and character and reduce peer bullying. Her most recent book, Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, is full of realistic, research-based advice for building empathy in today’s generation of kids.

Borba opens Unselfie in this way:

More than a decade ago, a dad came up to me after a speech I gave on empathy and thanked me. He handed me a photo of his son and told me that his son had hanged himself after enduring relentless bullying. The father asked me to promise that I’d never stop stressing empathy. "If someone had instilled empathy in those boys, my son would be alive today."

Her book and her continued work to stop and reverse the epidemic rise of a lack of empathy in today’s young people is Borba’s way of "keeping a promise to that dad and to all children who have endured peer cruelty."

You offer some pretty staggering statistics in your book. "Teens are now 40 percent lower in empathy levels than three decades ago, and narcissism has increased 58 percent." And you cited one study that showed a 52-percent increase in youth bullying in just four years. Why is lack of empathy such an issue for kids today, and how is that connected to what you call the "Selfie Syndrome"?

We always want to point to one thing, but this is almost like a perfect storm. We are technologically driven. Most kids have cell phones. They are more prone to looking down. Kids are missing emotional literacy. It’s the gateway to narcissism. And we’re a really competitive society, but empathy breeds better in a more supportive environment. We’ve changed our parenting culture. Everything is what you get, not what did you try. We’re not modeling empathy, which is one of the best ways to learn empathy. So it isn’t one thing. It’s a steady buildup. The good news is our kids are hardwired to care. We just need to be more intentional about nurturing that so our kids become "Unselfies" instead of "Selfies."

You gave a TED Talk in 2016 in which you said, "the answer to goodness is empathy." Just why is empathy so important?

It’s very highly correlated to predicting our real happiness and success. It activates our hearts, so we’re more likely to step in, be courageous, be compassionate, be contributing members of society. It’s also the best antidote we have to stopping bullying, ending racism, and opening up the doors to each other. It’s really our hope for humanity.

You also call empathy a verb. Can you explain what you mean by that?

That idea came from a third grader. He was in a program called Roots of Empathy, started by a woman named Mary Gordon, which teaches kids emotional literacy through exposure to and work with a real baby. His class was working with a baby named Clara. The teacher asked, "How does Clara seem to be feeling today?" And all the kids were observing; they were tuning in to the baby’s emotions. They all noticed she looked a little anxious because her hands were balled into fists. The teacher suggested, "Maybe we should all smile to make Clara feel better." This little guy turned to me and said, "Clara is learning empathy." These third graders were actively experiencing and witnessing empathy. And they would tell you empathy is a verb. It needs to be active. It needs to be meaningful. It needs to be real.

We can try to make empathy too abstract when it needs to be concrete. Use a baby. Use a puppy. Use film clips. There are so many simple ways to demonstrate empathy; it doesn’t have to cost a dime. Just make it a verb so kids understand and want to copy it and adopt it for their own. Empathy moments can transform us on the inside so we see ourselves and we see others in a different light. Empathy in action is our end goal — where the kids actually step in and want to make a difference; that’s called emotional courage.

You use a camp example in your book’s introduction, the Seeds of Peace International Camp, in Otisfield, Maine, whose entire program focus is on building empathy among its participants from around the world. Can you talk a little bit about what you observed there and what you think other camps can learn from this program?

The campers at Seeds of Peace are 14- to 16-year-old teens. They’ve been selected for their leadership abilities, and they’re flown in from war-torn areas all over the world. They come for a three-week camp from Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, as well as the United States and Britain. The camp is a miracle place. Everything from the atmosphere to the skills these kids learn is all about strengthening human connection. And kids are able to break out of their social hubs there.

Empathy is made up of habits — habits that we need to work on. These kids are learning communication, collaboration, and perspective taking. There are signs all over the camp that say, "Stop and talk." That’s the first step; you have to be aware the other person exists. You first learn empathy, and then you practice it. And if you practice it enough, then you can live it.

The campers at Seeds of Peace learn to see each other not as enemies but as real human beings.

Camp in general is a glorious oppor-tunity to find common ground. You can have kids get out of their comfort zones, exposing them to differences, different genders, races, etc. "Them becomes us." That’s a great opportunity!

Empathy also thrives in play. From canoeing to archery to swimming, when you feel comfortable and you’re just playing with others, you are more likely to step out of your comfort zone and identify with them.

At camp children can really practice some of the skills they don’t get to do in a classroom, where they’re just focused on the test score — social skills, how to disagree respectfully, how to win gracefully, how to lose gracefully.

We now deal with very lonely, very stressed-out kids too. As stress fills them up, empathy also goes down. Camp is an opportunity to learn coping strategies. Their whole world opens up, and they can see things from a different perspective.

How can we help campers and counselors alike tune in to feelings and become more emotionally literate?

Empathy is stretchable at any age. Those teaching it are also learning it. Stop and talk. Put down the cell phone, look at the other person, and realize they exist. You’ll get a whole different type of awakening. You’re able to read other people’s emotions that way.

The Seeds of Peace kids said it was about learning to listen, to be able to hear where others were coming from. You’re stuck with each other, so it’s also trying to air out your differences and finding common ground. Camp counselors can help with that just by encouraging a kid to make one new friend — that’s so valuable.

You talk about the importance of strengthening children’s morality. And one of the things you said that I found interesting is that parents — and by extension probably teachers, mentors, camp counselors — should focus on character, not behavior in praise. What do you mean by that?

What you’re actually doing when you say to a child, "You’re so smart," or "You’re so talented," is over time you’re making them think they’re better than everyone else. Kids believe their parents when they tell them they are more special than others. That’s not good for developing moral identity or empathy. Self-absorption kills empathy. Kids who feel entitled believe the world owes them special treatment, but empathy is about we, not me. It’s about helping a child recognize the character strengths they have. You can’t overpraise in that way. So, depending on how you praise, you can either increase empathy or increase narcissism.

One thing camp leaders can do (which parents often don’t do) is praise character strengths; point out when a child is being just or fair. "Thank you for encouraging a friend. You just made his whole day by walking up to him and encouraging him to play soccer." When you have an empathetic mindset, you see that empathy can be stretched and you’re a caring person, and you’re more likely to replicate that strength.

How does mindfulness play into nurturing empathy and compassion?

It plays a big role. Practicing mindfulness just a few minutes a day can make a difference in children’s lives. All they need to do is breathe. This is self-regulation, and it’s important because kids must learn to control their emotions before they can recognize others’ feelings. As stress builds, empathy breaks down, so kids need a strategy to dial down the stress.

Any other advice for camp professionals on how to help nurture empathy at camp?

Realize that you’re a lot more powerful than you give yourself credit for. The best way to boost empathy is to model it. Just ask yourself, "If my kids are getting anything from seeing my behavior at camp, is empathy one of those things?" Hopefully, yes.

Always look for something a camper is doing to show empathy and praise them for that. You can quietly help campers see themselves in a positive light. They can learn and practice empathetic behaviors they can use for the rest of their lives.

That’s the power of camp.

Borba’s Top Five Things to Know about Developing Moral Identities

1. "Moral identity can inspire empathy, activate compassion, and motivate caring behavior."
2. "To respond empathetically, kids must value other people’s thoughts and feelings."
3. "Overpraising can make kids competitive, tear others down, and diminish empathy."
4. "Entitling and ‘overvaluing’ kids may increase narcissism and hamper moral identity."
5. "If a child can imagine himself as a caring person, he is more likely to care about others."
(Borba, 2016)

REFERENCE

Borba, M. (2016). Unselfie: Why empathetic kids succeed in our all-about-me world. New York, NY: Touchstone.

Interview conducted by Marcia Ellett, editor in chief of Camping Magazine.