In writing and researching UnSelfie, I flew the world, spoke with hundreds of researchers, conducted focus groups with more than five hundred children, and visited dozens of schools. I witnessed countless ways to cultivate empathy, but the most effective were always real, meaningful, and matched a child’s needs. Here are a few of the most creative ways adults around the world are making a difference in cultivating children’s empathy, creating an UnSelfie world and giving them the Empathy Advantage.
Empathy is always a “We” affair. A simple, overlooked way to increase empathy is by making the culture friendlier. Just being with people in a friendly setting can increase your empathy toward them and make you want to be kinder. The small South Pacific island of Vanuatu exemplifies that social premise. It’s called “the Friendliest Place on Earth” and after visiting their island, I can see why. Everywhere residents greeted you with a sincere hello and a smile and seemed genuinely interested in you. Their friendliness was contagious, so you responded right back with a hello and a smile to a stranger.
When I asked Vanuatu residents why they were so friendly, their answer was simple: “Because everyone else is.” Friendliness makes you tune in, observe emotional cues, be more receptive to others’ feelings and needs, and instead of walking by, you smile and acknowledge a person’s existence right back. But you don’t have to move your family to the South Pacific to gain that “friendly effect.” Just intentionally take friendliness up a notch in your home, school, and neighborhood; here are a few ways.
Break Down Barriers
Martin Hoffman, a leading empathy authority, points out that we are more likely to empathize with people in our immediate circles or care about those “like us.” Expanding our children’s familiarity circles to those “not like them” opens the path to empathy, and nowhere have I discovered a more creative way to break down barriers than in Kabul. Skateistan was started in 2007 as an initiative to create educational and empowerment opportunities for Afghanistan’s youth, using skateboarding as a hook. Most participants are kids with the greatest social needs: working children, illiterate children, those from low-income families, and disabled youth and girls, who still face countless barriers. And 40 percent of Skateistan participants are girls—quite remarkable since women are banned from riding bicycles, associating with boys, or receiving an education. But 1,500 girls attend the skating school three days a week and skate in the afternoon through war-torn regions right alongside boys. We must expose our children to diversity and expand their circles of familiarity at an earlier age. Empathy has limits: we care most about those who are like us, which increases the empathy gap. Find opportunities to enlarge your child’s circles of caring.
Give Kids a Voice
Today’s kids are growing up in a hyper-connected world and admit they’d rather text than talk. But empathy is driven by face-to-face connection, and it’s why we must keep the art of conversation alive. A daily tradition at the ancient Sera Monastery in Tibet holds a key. Every afternoon monks gather in the courtyard built in 1419 to hold hour-long debates to grasp Buddhist philosophy. The session involves a “Defender” who sits and gives answers to the Challenger, who stands and asks questions. Each time they make a point, there are vigorous claps and dramatic hand slaps, and then pauses to consider their next argument carefully, all in a spirit of camaraderie and fun. No notes or books are allowed: debaters must depend on memorized points of doctrine and their understanding of the topic and ask nonstop questions. I watched the debates with reporters from all over the world and though I didn’t understand a word, I knew I was observing a critical piece to cultivating empathy: “voice” practice. The monks created a daily ritual in which they practiced verbalizing their opinions face- to-face and hearing others’ ideas and feelings. Empathy wanes without moral courage and moral identity. That’s why children must understand what they stand for and practice using their voices so they can speak out for others. Those monks practiced asserting themselves and describing their beliefs. How can you help your students practice listening to each other’s views and feelings?
The cognitive part of empathy is the ability to understand another’s thoughts and feelings—to step into their shoes. One of the interesting perspective-taking lessons I observed was in Yerevan where elementary students were taught to play chess. Armenia is the first country in the world to make chess compulsory for each child over six years of age. Their rationale? To boost children’s character and leadership. I watched young Armenian students walk into their mandatory class, greet their chess teacher, sit face-to-face with their same-age opponent, and for the next hour engage in a one- on-one chess match. And they do so once a week. The 1,500-year-old game is associated with increasing cognitive abilities, coping and problem-solving capacities, and socio-affective development, creativity, concentration, and improved reading and math scores, but as I recognized that chess is also powerful in cultivating perspective-taking. Students played face-to-face, imagined their opponent’s next plays, tuned in to emotional cues (“Does he look confident, hesitant, or anxious about that move?”), and predicted “if- then” scenarios (“If he moves that piece, then . . .”). They were learning to step into other’s shoes, but also having fun and building relationships. Might you be overlooking simple ways to teach kids’ perspective taking like chess, board games, theater, role-playing, dress up?
Build Caring Relationships
Empathy opens when children are in places where they feel safe, accepted, and heard. And warm relationships are the incubator of caring—it’s why parents who have warm, close relationships with their children are more likely to raise empathetic kids. And why classrooms and schools with positive climates have less bullying and students who feel less marginalized. We can and must work harder to create caring climates in our homes, schools, neighborhoods, and organizations.
Denmark, the land of the happiest people in the world takes empathy seriously, with an hour of empathy-building each week a required part the national curriculum for all kids aged 6 to 16. In Klassens Tid, or class time, students talk through any individual or group-level problems. Perhaps someone is being left out, or bullied, or there is a disagreement that can’t be solved among a few students.
“Together, the class tries to respect all aspects and angles and together find a solution,” says Iben Sandahl, co-author of The Danish Way of Parenting—What the happiest people in the world know about raising confident, capable kids. Kids’ issues are acknowledged and heard as a part of a bigger community, she says. “When you are recognized, you become someone.”
Sandahl is a former teacher and says Klassens Tid was always the highlight of her week. The goal is to create a safe and cozy atmosphere—the Danes call it hygee—where problems are aired and kids learn how to put things in perspective. There’s even a special cake the children themselves bake—the recipe is here—to eat while talking, and more importantly, listening.The practice has been around since the 1870s, but was codified in a 1993 education law and expanded since then. It is meant to help teachers as well as students. “You have the opportunity, as a teacher, to reflect on your own efforts to create an inclusive learning environment where students want to learn and join,” says Sandahl. “It is a way to let the class community grow
“Sometimes adults forget that little things matter a lot to help us care. All kids need to feel safe and cared about and want to belong,” a teen from the Seeds of Peace camp told me. “Just give us a chance to get to know each other, give us time, and we won’t let you down.”
Michele Borba, Ed.D. is an award-winning educational psychologist and an expert in parenting, bullying and character development. She is the author of 22 books including her latest, UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. Follow her on twitter @micheleborba and read her blog, Dr. Borba’s Reality Check.
Dr. Borba is a keynote speaker at the 2016 National Forum for Character Education taking place in Washington, DC October 14-15.Come here her speak and learn more about her international work. You can also catch Dr. Borba on Wednesday, September 14 in the webinar "Creating Peaceful Schools Around the World."