Join the #UnSelfie Revolution to Raise Kids with Empathy, Moral Conviction and Courage To Make a Better World
Three-days-a-week taekwondo, sleep-away chess camp, and a full slate of summer college courses. Hmmm…could there be a link between brutal schedules and brutal (well, at least self-centered) kids? Absolutely! Too many of us may be stressing the empathy right out of our kids. We do it from a place of good intentions—in a hyper-competitive world we are desperate to give our kids an edge—but all the pressure and all the structured activities are causing more harm than we know.
Fact is, too much stress hurts kids’ mental health. Teen stress is now at higher levels than that reported by adults. And as anxiety increases, empathy wanes. Why? Because it’s hard to feel for others when you’re in survival mode.
Many parents don’t realize just how crippling a lack of empathy really is. But in a global world, emotional intelligence and relationship skills are everything—they’re what allow employees to engage, communicate, collaborate, and connect with people from other cultures. The capacity to care is an essential building block of these skills. Kids develop it, in large part, through unstructured, unsupervised free play.
Summer, of course, once revolved around free play. Kids would spend all day every day outside riding bikes, playing baseball, swimming in lakes and pools, or just hanging out with neighborhood friends. But for many reasons—a cultural emphasis on achievement, fear for kids’ safety, the dependence on digital devices as entertainment–those carefree days are long gone. Like childhood itself, summer has become play-deprived and hyper-competitive.
We can’t turn back the clock, but we can infuse more fun, free play and and empathy-building activities into our kids’ summer. Here are ten ways to do so from my new book, UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World.
10 Tips to Help Us Stop Stressing the Empathy Out of Our Kids
1. Cut one activity to make room for play with friends.
Sit down with your child and his calendar right now and ask: is there one extra activity that can be cut to free up time to connect with peers and practice social skills? Make sure “be with friend” is added to the agenda. Kids are starved for play—so it’s crucial that during these few short months we make up this deficit as much as possible.
REALITY CHECK: 80% of kids say they wish they had more free time; 41% admit feeling stressed most of the time because they have too much to do.
2. Choose activities that emphasizes fun. (A diverse mix of kids doesn’t hurt either!)
Kids need time to relax and be in situations that force them to interact with other kids—and if some of those other kids represent other races, cultures, genders and belief systems, so much the better. Activities can and should be a fun opportunity to practice social skills. And having fun with kids from a variety of backgrounds really boosts empathy.
REALITY CHECK: Did you know 40% of U.S. schools have either eliminated daily recess or considered doing away with it to find more time to prepare kids for tests?
3. Force kids to “unplug” as much as possible.
Too much online communication means that our kids will be less equipped to develop skills to navigate their social world, learn emotional literacy, and practice empathizing. So set specific times to remain ‘unplugged’—for example, meal times, family meetings, and outings that involve other family members. Announce those “sacred times” and stick to them!” (And that includes parents!)
REALITY CHECK: The average 8- to 18-year-old is plugged in to a digital media device about seven hours and 38 minutes a day. And that doesn’t count time spent texting or talking on cell phones.
4. Try board games.
Set up family ‘dates’ where you ban electronics. Board games like Monopoly, Clue, Chutes and Ladders, Checkers are good, as are yard games like catch and Frisbee. You’ll be teaching your child essential collaborative skills while you have fun. After all, empathy is always “we” – not “me.”
5. Steer them toward cooperative (not competitive) games.
Collaborating is about working for the team or family or group—and it means you can’t always be first, win, or have your way. This lesson is increasingly rare in a trophy-driven world that often pits one child against another. Cooperative Games and Sports: by Terry Orlick or Everyone Wins!, by Josette and Sambhava Luvmour are two books you might want to read and share with parents.
6. Teach deal breakers.
Don’t underestimate old-fashioned strategies like Flip a Coin, Rock, Paper, Scissors, Pick a Number, Draw Straws, and Eenie, Meenie, Minnie, Moe in helping kids collaborate. They also help kids resolve questions like “Who goes first?” “Was the ball outside?” “What should we play?” and other issues that can derail cooperation. Kids need skills to curb conflict and keep empathy open. Practice them together until your child can use them alone.
7. Hold summer family movie nights.
Films can be portals to help our children understand other worlds and other views, to be more open to differences and cultivate new perspectives. Just rent a stirring film—Charlotte’s Web, October Sky, E.T., or The Book Thief— pop the popcorn, and make memories while discussing compassionate characters. Or start neighborhood Summer Drive-In Movies: families take turns tacking a sheet outside, plugging in the DVD, spreading blankets on the lawn, and showing great empathy-building flicks for the neighbor kids to watch.
8. Focus on face-to-face family interaction.
Don’t overlook the value of dinner table discussions to develop empathy. Family meals and even those car pools are great settings to let children routinely practice empathy builders like communicating and respecting each others’ views—especially when they don’t agree with them. Topics are endless: Clip interesting articles from the newspaper. Discuss the new movie reviews. Debate who is going to win that big game or the election (and who really should). Then have siblings briefly rephrase the other’s views: “So you feel…” Or “You think…”
9. Issue a “serving others” challenge.
Encourage your kids to find ways to help others this summer. You can do community service as a family or even join with other parents and their kids. Work at a shelter. Deliver gently used possession to charity. Pitch in together to help the elderly neighbor rake her leaves. The more they can make “caring about others” a part of their expected routine, the better.
10. Find simple daily ways to help your child think beyond himself.
Make caring a daily routine. For example, your child can deliver the inbound neighbor’s paper, take the doggy for a walk, help mom set the table, encourage teammates to make their goal, call Grandma and let her know she’s not alone. These are all great ways to help kids start emphasizing “we’” rather than “me.”
The idea is to help kids find a good balance of free play and hard work that benefits other people. Both build empathy. Both will make for a summer that’s fun, meaningful and rewarding on a whole different level. And the benefits will extend to when school doors open again to give our kids an edge in terms of academics and personal success.
For the past decade I’ve researched how to cultivate compassion, courage and empathy in children. I’ll be sharing those strategies culled from the latest rearch in upcoming blogs which are all from my newly-released book, UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About Me World now available in digital, audio and hardcover.
I hope you join me in what I call, the #UnSelfieRevolution to raise kids who think “We” not “Me” so they have the courage, conviction and compassion to stand up and support others. And it all starts with empathy!