The Secrets to Raising a Compassionate Child

Empathy is the ability to feel with another human being. And we're getting worse at it. Parenting expert Dr. Michele Borba, Ed.D., explains how you can help your child learn to be more empathetic.

father-daughter-hand
Photo by IvanJekic/Getty Images

Our cell phones have become an extra appendage, and we spend less and less time having in-person interactions. Even more distressing, all of that screen time is crippling our ability to empathize, Dr. Michele Borba argues in her new book, UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World.

According to Dr. Borba, studies have shown that incoming college freshman show 40 percent lower empathy levels than they did thirty years ago. In that same time, narcissism has increased 58 percent. And that's a problem.
"If empathy is waning, then bullying is going to go up, racism is going to go up, stress levels are going to go up," Dr. Borba told Real Simple at a luncheon to support the global youth service movement GenerationOn. "So the question becomes what can we do to turn it around?"

Fortunately, empathy can be taught and cultivated. But we have to put our phones down to do it. "Empathy starts with face-to-face interaction," Dr. Borba said. Here, her top tips for helping your kid care more:

Read (and talk) more. Teaching emotional literacy and social intelligence, so that your child can recognize and understand the feelings and needs of himself and others, is the key to unlocking empathy. Before you can empathize, you have to be able to decipher someone else's emotions. A great way to do this is by reading emotionally-charged books—and reading them often. Fiction is particularly good, says Dr. Borba. "MRIs show that, neurologically, literary fiction changes our brains." When you read with your child, ask questions like "How would you feel if that happened to you?" or pause in the middle of the book and ask your child how she thinks it will end. This will help children identify the emotional cues behind the character's decision-making and think about how it feels to be in another person's shoes. (For kid-approved bedtime stories click here.)

Teach kindness. Work with your child to brainstorm ways to be kind each day. Borba suggests following the "Two Kind Rule," which encourages kids to say something nice to as least two people every day. With time, she adds, "it creates a habit."

Emphasize eye contact. "Starting at age 2, you can tell your child to always look at the color of the talker's eyes," says Borba. This will allow your child to focus and pick up on emotions and facial expressions. "He will also start to learn strong body language and listening skills. Simple lessons like that can go a long way."

Share good news. "Go to the back of the newspaper. You will find great, inspiring stories about children who are making a difference in the world. When we share these stories, it opens other children's hearts and they realize that they can also make a difference."

Establish your family values. "Pop the popcorn, put on the pajamas, and sit down together with a poster board," Dr. Borba suggests. "Ask yourselves, 'Who are we as a family? 'What do we stand for?' You will figure out what your core values are." Take it one step further by coming up with a catchy family mantra ("The Caring Perlans," "We help, not hurt," or "Always step in").

Do as you say. "The fastest way to help your children to become more caring is to have them see you being more caring," says Dr. Borba. "Weave it into your daily life so you actually do it together. Keep a box where your kids put gently used toys or games they don't want anymore. When it's filled, donate them together as a family. Be sure to bring your kids so they understand the joy of giving back."

Looking for a way to get your child inspired to give back? Visit GenerationOn, an organization that aims to inspire, equip and mobilize kids and teens to become caring, compassionate, and skilled changemakers through volunteering and service.