10 ideas to strengthen empathy in your kids this summer

Fun Kids playing at the BeachParenting expert Michele Borba says overscheduled, overwhelmed kids are missing out on the free play and downtime that develop their capacity to care about others. Here, she offers 10 tips to help us stop stressing the empathy out of our kids this summer.

          New York, NY (June 2016)—America’s kids are more self-absorbed than ever. If their constant gaze into the selfie camera isn’t proof enough, plenty of statistics and news stories point to a fall in empathy, a rise in narcissism, and an epidemic of bullying and cruelty. If you’re a decent parent, of course, you want your kids to stop with the “me me me” and start thinking “we”—and you’ll address it as soon as you finish signing them up for three-days-a-week taekwondo, sleepaway chess camp, and a full slate of summer college courses.

Hmmm…could there be a link between brutal schedules and brutal (well, at least self-centered) kids? Absolutely, says parenting expert Michele Borba.

“Too many parents are stressing the empathy right out of our kids,” says Borba, author of Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World (Touchstone/A Simon & Schuster Imprint, June 2016, ISBN: 978-1-5011100-3-0, $25.00). “We do it from a place of good intentions—in a hypercompetitive world we are desperate to give our kids an edge—but all the pressure and all the structured activities are causing more harm than we know.”

Too much stress hurts kids’ mental health. Borba points out that one in five U.S. youth meets the criteria for a mental disorder in their lifetime, and teen stress is now at higher levels than that reported by adults. And as anxiety increases, empathy wanes. Why? Because it’s hard to feel for others when you’re in survival mode.

“Parents don’t realize just how crippling a lack of empathy really is,” says Borba. “But in a global world, emotional intelligence and relationship skills are everything—they’re what allow employees to engage, communicate, collaborate, and connect with people from other cultures.

“Well, the capacity to care is an essential building block of these skills,” she adds. “Kids develop it, in part, through unstructured, unsupervised free play.” (See below 10 tips to have stress free kids).

Summer, of course, once revolved around free play: bikes, baseball, swimming, or just hanging out with friends. But for many reasons—parental emphasis on achievement, safety fears, the dependence on digital devices as entertainment—those carefree days are long gone. Like childhood itself, summer has become play-deprived and hypercompetitive.

We can’t turn back the clock, but we can infuse more fun, free play, and empathy-building activities into our kids’ summer. Here are 10 suggestions:

Cut one activity to make room for play with friends. Eighty percent of kids say they wish they had more free time; 41 percent admit feeling stressed most of the time because they have too much to do. So sit down with your child and his calendar at the beginning of summer and ask: 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 friends” is added to the agenda. And when your child is with a pal, make it an “unplugged play date.”

“Many of today’s children may never experience hopscotch, duck-duck-goose, dodge ball, and freeze tag,” says Borba. “Forty percent of American schools have either eliminated daily recess or considered doing away with it to find more time to prepare kids for tests. Kids enter summer break starved for play—so it’s crucial that during these few short months we make up this deficit as much as possible.”

Team of four kids pulling the rope in the tug-of-war game

Team of four kids pulling the rope in the tug-of-war game

Choose a summer camp that emphasizes fun. (A diverse mix of campers doesn’t hurt either!) Increasingly, parents view summer as a time to give kids an extra academic edge. That’s why so many opt to send kids to a serious math or computer camp instead of the kind where you swim in lakes, weave lanyards, and sing around campfires. This is often a mistake, says Borba. 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.

“Summer camps can and should be a fun opportunity to practice social skills,” she notes. “Check out youth groups, YMCA, Boys & Girls Clubs, and Scouting, as well as day, weekend, or month-long summer camps. Obviously, take your child’s interests into account but also look for camps that will expand her horizons and build character and social skills. It’s generally better NOT to send her to camp with her best friend or even to send her to one where everyone looks just like her—having fun with kids from a variety of backgrounds really boosts empathy.”

Force kids to “unplug” as much as possible. Did you know that the average eight- to eighteen-year-old is plugged in to a digital media device about 7 hours and 38 minutes a day? And that doesn’t count time spent texting or talking on cell phones. Even preschoolers spend 4.6 hours per day using screen media, and almost 40 percent of two- to four-year-olds use a smartphone, MP3 player, or tablet. These numbers are shocking, and according to Borba, they’re a big part of the reason so many kids are lacking in empathy.

“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,” she notes. “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!

“Oh, and set up family ‘dates’ where you ban electronics,” adds Borba. “Board games like Monopoly, Clue, Chutes and Ladders, and Checkers are good, as are yard games like catch and Frisbee. You’ll be teaching your child essential collaborative skills while you have fun.”

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: Joyful Activities for Everyone, by Terry Orlick, or Everyone Wins! Cooperative Games and Activities, by Josette and Sambhava Luvmour, are two books you might want to read and share with friends and summer camp or youth group leaders.

“Also, don’t underestimate old-fashioned strategies like flip a coin; rock, paper, scissors; pick a number; draw straws; and eenie, meenie, miney, moe in helping kids collaborate,” says Borba. “They also help kids resolve questions like ‘Who goes first?’ ‘Was the ball out of bounds?’ ‘What should we play?’ and other issues that can derail cooperation. Kids need skills to curb conflict and keep empathy open. Practice them together until your child can use them alone.”

Insist that kids read this summer. No matter how busy kids are playing, there will (and should) be some quiet time in the summer. Most parents would much rather their kids spend that time reading than playing video games. And the great news is that not only does reading boost kids’ academic performance, it also boosts empathy. In fact, science finds that people who read fiction are more capable of understanding others, empathizing, and seeing another person’s point of view than those who read nonfiction.

“Only a small percentage of children’s books published each year in the United States are multicultural in nature,” says Borba. “You may need to do a little research to find them. Hopefully you can find a summer library program that will expose them early to a variety of multicultural literature that features positive images of all cultures and genders.”

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 to cultivate new perspectives. Why not initiate a regular family movie time? Just rent a stirring film—Charlotte’s Web, October Sky, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, or The Book Thief—pop the popcorn, and make memories while discussing compassionate characters. Or start neighborhood summer drive-in movies: Families take turns tacking a sheet outside, plugging in the DVD player, spreading blankets on the lawn, and showing a great empathy-building flick for the neighbor kids to watch.

Focus on face-to-face family interaction. We tend to focus more on the idea that it’s interaction with peers that creates the foundation for caring and getting along, but don’t overlook the value of dinner table discussions to develop empathy. Family meals and even carpools are great settings to let children routinely practice empathy builders like communicating, collaborating, and respecting each others’ views—especially when they don’t agree with them.

“Topics are endless: Just use your children’s world,” says Borba. “Ask about conflicts at school. 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 feelings: “So you feel…” or “You think…”

Find a place for kids to decompress. Even when kids feel empathy for others, stress, anger, and shame can thwart their ability to express their concerns. It’s yet another reason why our children need to learn to manage strong emotions and find a place to relax or decompress. Yes, it should be a literal place. Size doesn’t matter, but the spot should have a soothing feel. It might have a beanbag or rocking chair, soft pillows, stuffed animals, or a CD player, says Borba.

“Introduce it as a ‘place to calm down for every family member,'” she suggests. “Don’t let kids equate it with discipline or ‘time out.’ You want them to want to decompress. Once they learn the value of decompressing in the summer, they’ll be more likely to use the strategy once school begins.”

Issue a “serving others” challenge. Encourage your kids to find ways to help others this summer. You can do community service as a family. Work at a shelter. Deliver gently used possessions to charity. Pitch in together to help the elderly neighbor rake her leaves. And don’t stop there: Urge them to make serving others a part of their normal, expected routine. The more they can make “caring about others” a part of their expected routine, the better.

“Find simple daily ways to help your child think beyond himself,” says Borba. “For example, he can deliver the inbound neighbor’s paper, take the doggy for a walk, help mom set the table, encourage teammates to make their goal, call Grandma and let her know she’s not alone. These are all great ways to help kids start emphasizing ‘we’ rather than ‘me.'”

Issue each child a summer chore list. One of the best ways to help kids develop an “unselfie” attitude is by assigning chores. After all, to really be a team player in any group—be it family, sports, Scouting, church, club, play, or academic—you must set aside your individual concerns for the needs of the group, which are tough notions for kids who are too tightly wrapped up in themselves.

“Hopefully, kids have some chores all year long, but in the summer they hopefully have more time to devote to them,” says Borba. “It’s not unreasonable to ask them to tackle bigger chores that impact the whole family, like yard work and maybe projects like setting up an outside play area or decorating the family room that everyone can enjoy.”

The best summers are those that allow plenty of time for play with a bit of old-fashioned work thrown in for good measure.

“The idea is to help kids find a good balance of free play and hard work that benefits other people,” says Borba. “Both build empathy. Both will make for a summer that’s fun, meaningful, and rewarding on a whole different level. And the benefits will extend to when school doors open again to give our kids an edge, in terms of academics and personal success.”
Note: References for studies and statistics cited are available and will be provided upon request.

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15 Reasons Why Free Play Creates Empathy (and Other Valuable Life Skills)

  • Play helps them de-stress, which in itself creates space for empathy. (Kids who are anxious and stressed can turn off their empathy abilities to go into “survival mode.”)
  • It helps kids appreciate differences. (Hey, this kid on the playground may have a different skin color, but we have a lot in common.)
  • It forges friendships, strengthens social competence, and lets them practice social skills like getting along, listening, and collaborating.
  • It boosts self-confidence and helps kids learn to become masters of their own destiny (without adults directing, pushing, managing, or scheduling).
  • Play boosts children’s creativity and helps them imagine, invent, and develop different perspectives about life.
  • It stretches children’s attention spans and increases their ability to focus on themselves and others.
  • It helps kids hone their “perspective taking” skills to understand others’ views and needs.
  • Make-believe play helps kids step outside themselves and imagine the thoughts and feelings of others.
  • Play builds new competencies and lifelong hobbies and helps kids learn to enjoy just being in their own company.
  • It helps kids learn to find their voice so they can stand up for themselves and others and practice leadership skills.
  • It teaches kids how to share, negotiate, and compromise and resolve conflicts.
  • It promotes brain growth and makes kids smarter.
  • It enriches their social, emotional, cognitive, and physical development.
  • Play helps kids recognize others’ emotional states, tune up their emotional literacy skills, and offers the potential to share feelings with others.
  • Play creates joyful memories of childhood. Come on, no kid is going to remember the worksheets and carpools; but swings, playing leapfrog, jumping in the mud, blowing bubbles, building forts—those are the unforgettable childhood moments.

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About the Author:
Michele Borba, Ed.D., is an internationally renowned educational psychologist; a former classroom teacher; and an expert in parenting, bullying, and character development. She is an award-winning author of 22 books translated into 14 languages. One of the foremost authorities on childhood development in the country, she is a regular NBC contributor who has appeared over 130 times on the TODAY show and has been featured as an expert onDateline, The View, Dr. Phil, NBC Nightly News, Fox & Friends, Dr. Oz, and The Early Show, among many others. She lives in Palm Springs, California, with her husband, and she is the mother of three grown sons. See www.micheleborba.com.

About the Book:
Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World (Touchstone/A Simon & Schuster Imprint, June 2016, ISBN: 978-1-5011100-3-0, $25.00) is available at bookstores nationwide and from major online retailers.


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