“The highest measure of a civilization lies in how it cares for its children.” ~Margaret Mead
by Kristen Morgan, Director of Children, Youth, and Family Ministry
As many of you know, Dr. Michele Borba was recently in town to present her book, Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Today’s All-About-Me World. (The program was made possible through a partnership between St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and St. Paul’s Episcopal Nursery School in Mt. Lebanon, the Upper St. Clair School District, the USC Parent Teacher Council Wellness Committee and the Youth Steering Committee of Upper St. Clair. Funding for this event was generously provided by the Community Foundation of Upper St. Clair, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and St. Paul’s Episcopal Nursery School.) I am so thankful to simply have been made aware of this book, and to have read it. It spoke to so many of the concerns I have with raising my own children in the current world climate, and spoke to other concerns I have in helping raise up the children of St. Paul’s into a life of faith lived out in the real, often self-centered world. Second, I am so thankful for having been able to meet with and then attend a lecture by the author on Monday, November 11th. Dr. Borba is an incredibly eloquent and vibrant speaker-- she is every bit as energetic and passionate about the topic of cultivating empathy in our children in person as she is in her TED talks. (Check them out, especially if you didn’t get to see her in person!) Third, and last, I appreciate all the ideas that I took away from that presentation-- which I really feel very moved to share with you here.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but our world is often a very divided place. We see serious social ills that separate us from each other, such as racism, anti-antisemitism, misogyny, and generalized hate for the “other”. We are seeing other issues that are becoming the “norm”-- incivility, rudeness, and intolerance of anything different from that which is “ours”. With all of our advances in technology and communication, people are losing the ability to communicate face to face. And this lack of face to face communication is creating a serious empathy deficit.The biggest group that this is affecting-- this failure to communicate face to face-- is with our youth. Did you know that there has been a 40% decrease in empathy in this group, and a 58% increase in narcissism? These kids are lagging in their skills of empathy-- which, by definition, is the ability to see with the eyes of another, listen with the ears of another, and feel with the heart of another. Empathy is what makes a life well-lived. It’s not all about “me”. It’s about “us”.
The Empathy Advantage is well documented-- it brings real happiness, resilience, it ignites courage, curbs conflict through improving problem solving and increasing collaboration, it curbs racism, and creates happier relationships. Aren’t these all the things we want for our children? Whe our ability to empathize drops, we see increased issues with mental health, increased levels of stress, increased loneliness, and increased issues with racism and anti-semitism, along with the many other previously outlined problems. As parents, and as a faith community, we want to raise kids who are strong, kind, caring, and courageous, ones who can take the faith that they are learning at church--hopefully, faith that we are modeling for them, because how better to teach than to live it out ourselves?-- out into the real world. However, our kids are lagging behind in terms of some habits outlined by Dr. Borba-- nine habits that will build empathy and enable them to become successful, empathetic adults who will lead the world in a very different direction from where it is headed now.
It’s very easy to get focused on grades, and sports, and other activities-- for a few minutes, let’s talk about how we can build up our kids HEARTS. Because their HEARTS are just as important, if not more important, than their HEADS. NOTE: I’m not saying our kids are terrible. ;) Far from it. I hope you all know how much I love your kids. They are amazing. Let’s work on developing these habits in our kids, and in ourselves too, because these are absolutely critical for our world to be the place it should be.
First, remember that EMPATHY IS A VERB. You can’t learn it from a worksheet. You learn it by feeling it. There are nine habits needed to be an empathetic human being.
1. Emotional literacy.
Emotional literacy means tuning in to people--in other words, “reading” people. It means reading people’s faces, postures, hands, etc. and putting names to emotions. It means hearing things in people’s voices-- frustration, for example, or happiness. Kids understand words like Happy, Sad, or Angry. But what about words like Frustrated? Or Confused? Those can feel a lot like Angry-- but they’re not the same. Anger can actually mean that the person feels threatened, offended, frustrated, or annoyed. When we say “I feel happy”, we can mean confident, grateful, peaceful, excited, or playful. These nuances are something that we can teach by using the words in our everyday conversations. We can do this by asking our kids “How does X seem to feel today? How can you tell?” Then look at that person-- how CAN you tell? The best thing to teach kids is to look at the eyes of the talker. This is one of the best ways to learn to communicate face to face--look them in the eyes, and try to figure out how they’re feeling.
Goal: Bring back face-to-face communication by creating sacred “unplugged” times. That way kids (and adults) learn to relate to each other, rather than relating to each other through a screen.
2. Moral identity.
What type of family do YOU want to be remembered as? We act as we see ourselves to be-- so is your family the Caring Jones’s? Or the Kind Johnson’s? Consider creating a family mantra, and then repeat, repeat, repeat. That mantra will become integrated into your child’s identity.
This is when we think about what it must be like to be walking in someone else’s shoes-- it’s the cognitive part of empathy. Dr. Borba described this as “Feels + Needs”. “How do you think the person feels?” and “What would you need to feel better if you felt like that?” This is how we widen the empathy circle-- turn THEM into US, and ME into WE. As face-to-face socialization time goes up, with increased emotional literacy, and a strong moral identity-- we are looking at significantly more empathetic kids.
4. Moral imagination.
Dr. Borba suggests using films, books, and images to cultivate empathy. Read a book or watch a movie. Stop, and ask, “How do you think that person feels?” and “What would you need to feel better if you felt like that?” Some good books for this are Tuck Everlasting, The Outsiders, Wonder, The Hundred Dresses, Harry Potter books, and The Wednesday Surprise.
I felt such a strong connection to this section of the presentation. Kids must learn to master their strong emotions. That means they need to be able to regulate themselves. We all have strong emotions and the kids are no exception. There is a mental health epidemic going on because kids have trouble handling their stress, and figuring out how to turn it off. The scary, terrible statistic is that kids ages 10 to 14 years of age are the group that saw the highest jump in suicides in the past ten years. Do your kids know what their stress signs are? Do you know what yours are? Sit down together and work on figuring it out. Does your head get hot? Do your fists ball up? Do you feel your heart pounding in your chest? If you know what your stress sign is, and they can identify what their stress sign is, both of you can take action as soon as you notice.
First, take a deep breath. Then, take more deep breaths!
Second, give yourself a positive affirmation, like “I can handle this”.
Finally, chunk the feelings into small time increments-- 10 seconds at a time, if needed. Breathing is the first step to handling any strong emotion. Want to tap into this section? It’s chapter 5!
6. Practice kindness.
This one is simple. We want to create in our kids a caring mindset and prosocial behavior. Dr. Borba interviewed kids in our area of Pittsburgh and believe it or not-- they feel like the most important thing to parents is their kids’ GRADES-- much more than whether or not they are kind kids. (Side note-- I asked my kids and they agreed. Ouch.) Dr. Borba suggests that grades shouldn’t be rewarded-- praised, yes. But not rewarded. And equal praise should go to kind behavior-- the kind you want repeated.
We want our kids to be able to problem-solve while they are still young so that once they go out into the world, they have this skill. Working together to solve a problem is KEY to success and happiness!
8. Moral courage.
This is so important-- we want to raise our kids to stand up for justice and compassion! The world is pervasively scary, so much so that sometimes people develop Compassion Fatigue-- or “Mean World Syndrome”. Have you ever heard Mr. Rogers talk about this? He said that whenever something scary would happen in the world, his mother would tell him “Look for the helpers.” There are always people helping. Cut the positive stories and images from the news and emphasize those-- and emphasize the fact that THOSE are the people we want to be.
9. Altruistic leadership.
Kids need to realize “I can make a difference.” We need to STREEEEETTCCCHHHH our kids while they are young so that they grow into the people the world needs. Change happens from the inside out. St. Paul’s is a wonderful, caring, growing place and with this new knowledge, we can guide our kids very intentionally towards becoming empathetic adults. We can teach our kids the words for their feelings. Guide them as they create their moral identity. Help them learn to see the perspective of others, through books and film. Teach them how to manage their strong emotions. Model what it looks like to be kind, so they know what that means. Teach them how to solve problems together. Show them how to stand up for justice. And let them know that they can make a difference in the world.
Empathy. See, Hear, and Feel with Another. Think About It. And then Do Something About It.