Most people believe empathy is one of those many soft skills, like courage or humility, that are important to healthy development. But according to a new book by Dr. Michele Borba, empathy reigns supreme among social-emotional skills and plays a surprising role in predicting kids’ success and well-being.
Borba, an educational psychologist and parenting expert, has been studying the role of empathy in child and adolescent development for many years. She suggests empathy is the key to success for raising healthy, thriving children. With over 350 references to neuroscience and developmental research in the back of her book, Borba not only makes the case for empathy, but also provides the go-to source for anyone wanting to help children build their empathy muscles.
UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World represents the pinnacle of Borba’s work and research in the fields of character development, parenting, and education. Borba sees a serious empathy deficit in today’s digital society. She calls it the “Selfie Syndrome” and claims it has given rise to a culture of bullying, dishonesty, and unhappiness.
The antidote? Adults need to switch their focus from “helping kids earn grades, trophies, and test scores” to helping them cultivate empathy.
Following a 30-year decrease in empathy among young people, Borba is among a growing number of researchers, scientists, and business leaders calling for change. Many have sounded the alarm. Psychologist and author, Daniel Goleman first brought the importance of empathy to the forefront and applied the concept to success in business in a 1998 article in the Harvard Business Review. The American Association of Medical Colleges named empathy an “essential learning objective.” Dr. Louis Cozolino, author of The Neuroscience of Human Relationships, suggested empathy is at the center of all human interactions. Hundreds of studies, including my own research in positive youth development have identified empathy as a core ability for life success.
Borba digs deeply into what we know about empathy and how to grow this ability in children and teens. Culled from research, she identifies nine essential and teachable habits that help kids achieve lifelong happiness and success.
When children learn to tune into their own feelings, they develop the emotional literacy to tune into someone else’s feelings.
Children who define themselves as caring and responsible learn to value other people’s thoughts and feelings.
Borba says, “When children can grasp another’s perspective, they are more likely to be empathetic, handle conflicts peacefully, be less judgmental, value differences, speak up for those who are victimized, and act in ways that are more helpful, comforting, and supportive of others.”
Children who read, according to Borba, are transported to other worlds that transform their hearts.
Children who learn the art of regulating their emotions are much abler to look beyond themselves and feel empathy for others. Self-regulation helps them become “unselfies.”
Compassion is like a muscle. The more it is exercised, the more deeply it becomes ingrained in a person’s life.
Children who learn teamwork learn to move from “me” to “we.” “It is only when we let go of our self-centeredness and feel with others that our hearts open,” says Borba. “Empathy is always a ‘we’ experience.”
When children possess moral courage, they feel inwardly motivated to put empathy into action, despite the consequences. This habit is about standing up for justice and compassion because it’s the right thing to do.
When empathy is the true north of their moral compasses, Borba says that “kids recognize when someone is hurting, needs comfort, or is treated unjustly.” My own research, the foundation of Tomorrow’s Change Makers: Reclaiming the Power of Citizenship for a New Generation, shows Borba’s claims to be valid. It illustrates the journey toward engaged citizenship through the stories of young people who were raised and educated with the kinds of habits outlined in Borba’s book.
For readers who follow my articles and research, it’s likely no surprise that I highly recommend Dr. Michele Borba’s book and believe it will be a relevant source of knowledge and advice for parents and educators for many years to come.
Borba, M. (2016). Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. New York: Touchstone.
Cozolino, L. (2006). The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: Attachment and the Developing Social Brain. New York: Norton.
Goldman, D. (1998). “What Makes a Leader?” Harvard Business Review, OnPoint 3790, pp. 82-91.
Stepien, A. and Baernstein, A. (May 2006) “Educating for Empathy,” Journal of General Internal Medicine 21, no. 5: 524–30.
Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD, is a developmental psychologist and researcher, working at the intersection of positive youth development and education. Follow Marilyn's work at Roots of Action, Twitter, or Facebook.
Subscribe to receive email notifications of Marilyn’s articles.
©2016 Marilyn Price-Mitchell. All rights reserved. Please see reprint guidelines for Marilyn’s articles.