It’s been five years since Oxford Dictionaries chose “selfie” as its annual word of the year. While there’s nothing wrong with snapping selfies, today’s adolescents demonstrate a greater degree of self-absorption (focusing only on “I”, “me”, and “mine” instead of “we”, “ours”, “us”) than at any other time in history. A decade ago, the term “narcissist” was an obscure reference to Greek mythology; now we hear it almost daily. Our culture of self-promotion and personal branding that today’s kids navigate, also shapes their thinking. A 2009 study found that two-thirds of teens ranked their own personal happiness as being more important than being a good person.*

This trend has only accelerated since then. As parents and educators, we want better for our kids. In Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed on our All-About-Me World, educational psychologist Michelle Bobra digs into why teens typically show far less empathy than previous generations, and what we can do about it as educators and parents. This “empathy crisis” has very practical implications, Bobra says, because self-focus can interfere with developing the same creative problem-solving and collaborative skills that are essential to thriving in a global economy. In a recent survey of 150 CEOs, 80% cited empathy as critical to success. I highly recommend Bobra’s book, and want to share four of her UnSelfie ideas that can grow kids’ empathy:

Connect with everyday people in friendly ways

A child develops empathy when they make eye contact, smile, and give a friendly greeting to a person that crosses their path—another parent, a caregiver, the checker at the supermarket are great places to start. If conversations are too much, encourage your child to be a “feeling detective.” Ask them to identify facial expressions and body language. Have them guess how the other person might be feeling.

Teach kids to use their voice

Real, face-to-face conversations are essential to understanding others. The KIPP Schools network uses its SLANT approach: Sit up, Listen, Ask questions, Nod, and Track the speaker to build communication skills. Electronics-free family dinner can be a great way to practice this.

Play old-school games that require imagination

Dressing up and role-play games that require kids to take on the identity and perspective of another character used to be a huge part of growing up. Unfortunately, passive entertainment and screen time have largely taken their place for many kids.

Form genuine relationships

A warm, nurturing environment like Summit can incubate authentic connections through which kids genuinely know one another and care about others’ needs. It’s tempting for parents to build parties and playdates around high-energy activities, (and those have their place, too), but also consider including icebreakers or team-building activities (look online) that help kids form genuine bonds and cultivate community.

Empathy may not jump to mind when we think about qualities kids will need to succeed in a career, but Harvard Business Review and Forbes magazine point to it as crucial. Helping our kids develop their emotional intelligence, sense of self-identity and self-control, and walk around in someone else’s shoes will serve them well in school, work and life. How to do this exactly may seem, but as a teenager Bobra interviewed explained: “Sometimes adults forget that little things matter a lot to help us care. All kids want to feel safe and cared about and want to belong. Just give us a chance to get to know each other. Give us time, and we won’t let you down.” I believe it!

Forward, Mark Bistricky

*Richard Weissbourd, The Parents We Mean to Be (New York: Mariner Books, 2009), pp. 41-42.

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