“It’s natural for parents to want to help their kids feel good, but what we may be missing is also helping them care about others.” ~ Michele BorbaUnselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World
I recently had the privilege of co-facilitating my kids’ school district’s first parent book club. It was a collaboration between the middle school guidance counselor and the PTSA. It was born out of the PTSA’s desire to support the district’s “kindness initiatives” and focus on social-emotional learning as well as the school’s effort to strengthen the school-home connection.
Because schools and homes are the main contexts in which children learn, an effective way to nurture students’ social-emotional selves is to bring this topic to both the school and the home. This book club aimed to walk this bridge when choosing to read and discuss Michele Borba’s book Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Success in Our All-About-Me World.
It was a refreshing experience to sit with a group of parents (including the guidance counselor who is also a parent) and talk about our successes and challenges in providing our children with the “Empathy Advantage.” Borba’s book provides a list of 9 essential habits that parents and schools (see her article in Educational Leadership) can foster within children.
The book provides a plethora of tips and tools based on her extensive research on empathy development. Reading this book encouraged us to individually and collectively reflect on our values, and ways to effectively communicate with and teach our children.
“If we want empathetic children, we must help them define themselves as people who care about and value others, and we must instill those beliefs during childhood” (p. 31)
For me, there were two significant takeaways from the book club discussion:
- Adults MUST model empathy constantly.
- We are not alone and need each other.
Adults MUST model empathy constantly.
Parents and teachers are the most influential people in children’s lives. The children are watching us! It is critically important that we reflect on how we embody and model the values to which we want our children to withhold. Reflecting on one’s parenting or teaching with the intention to improve (i.e. How do I nurture habits of empathy?), requires us to be vulnerable. I admit that while reading my inner critic, “Ms. Perfectionism, I am not a good parent” voice, made herself known at times. I was relieved and appreciative that this experience resonated with others. Vulnerability is no joy ride, so with empathy from a supportive group (i.e., book club) and self-compassion, we can begin to acknowledge and forgive our imperfect parenting.
We each shared an experience where we failed in modeling empathy and how we might have handled it differently with one of Borba’s suggestions. The discussion was rich. I left with the intention of not telling my children how they “should” act, but rather pay closer attention to if and how I model these habits. In other words, ask the following questions in the moment (if possible) or as a reflection:
- How do my interactions with my children and the world in which they watch me participate cultivate the habits of empathy?
- What can I learn about my children’s empathy development by observing the way they interact with others and the world?
- Do they see themselves as empathetic people? If not, what can I do to cultivate this belief?
- Do they see me this way? If not, how can I change my behavior?
We are not alone and need each other.
To reflect on ourselves and our parenting, it helps to have a support group. The book club became a safe space for us to share our parenting experiences as it relates to raising empathetic children. Our interaction was in itself an act of empathy and compassion reflecting our common humanity or connectedness.
While we may have different aged children and come from different backgrounds, we all want our children to grow up to be caring, happy adults. Even though we did not know each other, or know each other well, we experienced a camaraderie of sorts, a “we are in this together!” We began to cultivate a compassionate connection. This connection lights the social-emotional path between school and home.
If you are a parent, educator or anyone working closely with young people, I encourage you to read Michele Borba’s book and share your experiences below. And even more so, I urge you to join or begin a parent book club. Together we can cultivate an empathetic and compassionate world.
To each of the participants of the book club,