Join the #UnSelfie Project to Raise Kids with Empathy and Courage To Make a Better World
Let’s be clear: our kids’ mental health is at stake and one inescapable reason is that they experienced a horrendous year. School shootings shattered their perceptions of safety. Thousands of U.S. kids endured floods, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, fires, and loss of homes. Of course, if they didn’t experience tragedy they heard or saw it portrayed in brutally-graphic images. And high-stakes-testing and overscheduled, pressurized existences with no time to unwind or build friendships just upped kids’ anxiety. What our kids don’t need are hectic summer schedules. Nationwide surveys about American kids are dismal.
Teen stress is now at higher level than that reported by adults.
The National Institute of Mental Health reports that one of five American youth meet the criteria for a mental disorder.
Major depressive episodes have increased: 17 percent of teens considered suicide; nearly 14 percent of students actually made a suicide plan.
Today’s young adults also feel disconnected and lonely: more than half say they feel isolated. And studies also show that kids who interact face-to-face with friends and spend fewer time on social media and smartphones feel less lonely and are mentally healthier. As anxiety increases, empathy wanes. It’s hard to feel for others when you’re in survival mode.
Summer once revolved around free play and spending 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 and that is a tragedy for our kids.
We can’t turn back the clock, but we can infuse more fun, free play and and empathy-building activities into our kids’ summer. Doing so can help not only reduce their stress and loneliness but also learn to get along and learn face to face connection. Here are nine, no-cost ways to do so from UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World.
9 Ways to Help Kids Have a Stress-Free Summer
1. Cut one activity to make room for play with friends.
Sit down with your child and his calendar right now. 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: 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 and de-stress
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!)
Summer is when we can help our digital-driven, stressed-out kids reclaim face-to-face connection and notice people, not texts. We can let them rediscover sandboxes, learn Yahtzee, play Old Maid, practice meeting and greeting others or learn the art of real conversation. They can also walk to the park, hold playdates, shoot baskets, roast marshmallows or play Mother May I?
And they can also learn how to de-stress whether it’s exploring nature, meditating, or breathing deeply.
Stress-reducers don’t have to cost a dime or require pricey tutors. What about fishing, hiking, ball playing, swimming, reading or just cloud glazing?
It may sound like Maybury, but it’s exactly what kids need.
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, not counting 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.” And the gateway to empathy is emotional literacy: kids can’t feel with others unless they can read feelings. Game time helps your child practice face-t0-face connection, tune into emotions. learn sportsmanship, and destress.
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 conflicts reduce stress 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 Movie Nights.Families take turns tacking a sheet outside, plugging in the DVD, spreading blankets on the lawn, and showing great inspiring empathy-building flicks for the kids to watch and enjoy together. And doing so is a fabulous way for them to renew their faith in humanity and the common good.
Here is a blog of 100 films for kids 5 to 17 that teach nine crucial empathy habits.
8. Focus on face-to-face family interaction
Don’t overlook the value of dinner table discussions to develop empathy and learn empathy. Family meals and even those car pools are great settings to let children routinely practice 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…” Practicing social skills helps build healthy relationships. And having healthy relationships reduces stress and cultivates empathy.
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. And research also shows that giving to others is one of the best ways to de-stress.
It’s time for us to be sensitive to our children’s needs. They need to recharge, learn to feel safe, unplug, and build real-life relationships, and these next weeks is the perfect opportunity.
For our kids’ sake, let the lazy-hazy-crazy summer days begin!
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 research in upcoming blogs which are all from my 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 my #UnSelfie Project 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!