Last week I joined with NBC’s Education Nation to have another hour-long Twitter chat. This is our fourth time and always a thrill. This time the folks at Education Nation asked me to share facts and tips from my new book, UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. It was just released two weeks ago and I’m thrilled to say it’s already in it’s third printing. The topic is resonating with parents and educators alike. Writing UnSelfie was a personal ten-year journey to discover how we can cultivate empathy in our children.

Our chat shared over 100 tips and in one hour my twitter feed alone reached over 230,000 people. Education Nation joined forces with America’s Promise, Points of Light, GenerationOn (and others) to get those tweets out to parents. The response was so huge, I wanted to share my tweets and Education Nation’s questions. This is going to be a two-part blog because there are so many tips. My goal is to start a conversation with parents about the importance of nurturing empathy in our children, why it matters, and simple ways to do so.

NBC’s Education Nation Questions About Empathy and My Answers

  1. Empathy is the one human capacity that lets us to link minds and hearts across cultures and generations.
  2. Empathy is key to helping kids be successful and happy and base of healthy relationships, trust, resilience.
  3. Empathy can be nurtured. It’s composed of teachable habits that must be developed, practiced and lived
  4. Empathy is our best antidote to bullying, aggression, prejudice and racism.
  5. Empathy is core to everything that makes society civilized and makes our kids good people
  6. Activating empathy is made of nine essential habits: each must be taught.
  7. Empathy is best activated by experiencing or witnessing it, not taught on a worksheet or poster.
  8. Emotionally attuned kids are healthier & score higher academically than kids not coached to consider others’ feelings.

 In your book, UnSelfie, you say teens are now 40 percent less empathetic than 30 years ago; narcissism has increased 58 percent. What has caused this drastic drop in empathy and significant increase in narcissism?

The biggest drop in empathy started around the year 2000. That’s when I really started researching the Empathy Dip and discovered numerous causes of what I called the “Selfie Syndrome” (a pronounced focus on “me” not “we.”). Some factors that diminish empathy include: hyper-competitiveness, lack of face-to-face connection, a celebrity-driven culture that focuses on money and brands, social media that constantly broadcasts our lives, over-scheduled existences, buildup of stress without coping strategies, no time for kids to play and build relationships, praise that focuses on “you’re special” and the dawn of the trophy kid. The key is to remember that all of these are not natural but human disasters, and that means we can turn this the Selfie Syndrome around so we raise good people with hearts as well as minds. And here are some of the causes that I outline in UnSelfie:

  1. Self-absorption kills empathy. We must get kids to switch their focus from “I, Me, My” To “We, Us, Ours.”
  2. “Overvaluing” kids increases narcissism and hampers them from developing a moral identity and caring mindset (as well as the other essential habits of empathy outlined in UnSelfie.).
  3. Face to face-not digital exchanges-develop empathy: you don’t learn it facing screens.
  4. Too much online communication hinders kids from developing skills to navigate their real social world.
  5. When empathy wanes, aggression and bullying rise. One study found that youth bullying increased 52 percent in just four years!
  6. Failing to build kids’ empathy capacity is nothing short of failing them. We must address both sides of the report card.
  7. Parents should create “unplugged times”: everyone unplugs to allow face-to-face conversation. After all, you don’t learn empathy by checking emojis. You must connect and tune into people.

Causes of selfie syndrome 

“Emotional Literacy” is the first empathy habit in your book, UnSelfie,. How can parents nurture it?

  1. Kids need to recognize and understand feelings in themselves and others to empathize and develop an emotional vocabulary. There are so many ways to weave “emotional literacy” training into our day to day lives.
  2. Talk feelings. Kids need an emotion vocabulary to discuss feelings and guidance to become emotionally literate. Point out feelings in films, books, or people and use emotion words
  3. Be an emotion coach. Find natural moments to connect face-to-face, listen, and validate your child’s feelings (“You look happy. You seem sad.”)
  4. Teach: “Always look at the color of the talker’s eyes.” It helps kids tune in, use eye contact, and pick up facial expressions, voice tone * emotional cues.
  5. Use “Feels + Needs” formula. Draw attention to people’s feelings. Ask child to guess what person feels or needs in order to change mood.
  6. Be a film critic. Watch silent pictures with your kids. Try guessing how the actors feel based on their body language.
  7. Imagine how the person feels. To help your child identify with the feelings of others is to have him imagine how the other person feels about a specific circumstance
  8. Skype! Skype or FaceTiming is a great way for kids to connect with loved ones face-to-face – especially when they are far away. “Watch Grandma’s face. She may not tell you she’s tired but her face may and then you’ll know when to say “Goodbye.” “I bet John is so proud that he won the tournament. Let’s see if we can hear it in his voice.”
  9. Share your feelings. An easy way to help kids understand feelings: talk about yours. It helps show how to put words to it all.

UnSelfie says that parents can nurture empathy in their kids. Give us some ways to do so.  

  1. Choose one empathy skill a month. Practice it a few minutes a day until your kid can use it without reminders.
  2. An emotional vocabulary alone doesn’t guarantee empathy: it must be nurtured, modeled & reinforced.
  3. Animals can be powerful subjects to teach emotions. Try raising a puppy with your kids.
  4. Capture caring moments. Display them prominently & let your kids overhear you describing these caring moments to others.
  5. Create a motto that describes your values. “Our family steps in to help” “We treat others the way we want to be treated.”
  6. Kid’s theatre and acting classes can enhance kid’s’ perspective-taking abilities.

unselfieIn my post, I’ll share the remaining tweets and strategies to raise empathetic kids. Let’s join forces and move that dial so we raise a generation of kids with strong minds and caring hearts! Hope you’re with me.


Michele Borba
These ideas are from UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All About Me World available in digital, audio and hardbound version in any book store or online.