PEP Blog


Give Your Child the “Empathy Advantage”

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis

Dr. Michele Borba is the author of over 20 parenting books, including Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, described as “a game-changing guide showing why nurturing empathy in our children isn’t optional – it’s essential.”

In this interview, she speaks with Katherine Reynolds Lewis about the value of cultivating empathy in our children.

Q: Why is empathy more important than math facts, soccer skills, violin lessons or any of the other things we want our children to learn to be high-achieving and successful?

Borba: Empathy is the secret sauce that is going to help your child achieve and be a peak performer, but it’s the ingredient we’re overlooking. Without empathy, you have a child who’s burned out. Empathy creates more engaged, deep learners. Harvard University says it’s the top employability skill. It helps with mental health. It creates relationships that gel.

By encouraging empathy, parents are giving their children what they really need to thrive in life – everything you want for your child – and it doesn’t cost a dime. It’s not one more program, it’s not an app and you don’t need to hire a tutor. You just find simple, science-backed ways to weave empathy-building into your natural parenting.

Q: How can parents cultivate empathy?

Borba: There’s no right or wrong method, but it starts with the single, greatest thing we can do as a parent: be empathetic with our kids. The best way to teach empathy is to show it, not tell it. What our children are craving right now are good role models. Think: “How can I show my child empathy today? If my child had only my behavior to watch, what will he have caught?” Be sure to:

  • Keep reading to your child. Research has shown that literary fiction, books like “Bambi” and “Charlotte’s Web,” activate the part of the brain where empathy lives. Kids need to step into others’ shoes. Make sure you expose your child to books that are diverse and meaningful.
  • Expose them to differences. Our kids are living in a global, diverse world. Take them to museums and restaurants that reflect that diversity. Show them movies representing different perspectives.
  • Keep doing the mindfulness exercises the school is doing. Empathy requires a child to dial down their stress. Find opportunities to take deep, slow breaths or do mindfulness training or go out and shoot baskets.

Q: Can you talk about the empathy gender gap?

Borba: As the mother of three boys, I will tell you we do a far better job with our daughters when it comes to empathy. Researchers looking through two-way mirrors see that we talk feelings far more with our daughters than with our sons. There’s already a pink-blue divide by 5 years of age. Feelings are the gateway to empathy. Talk feelings more with boys – not just at 6 o’clock, but naturally, throughout the day. Do a feelings watch when you go to the mall: “Let’s find someone who looks happy.” “She’s sounding really stressed.”

Q: How do we parents develop our own empathy, especially if our children are being difficult or annoying?

Borba: You can always stretch empathy at any age. It looks like we’re better at it in middle age. The first step is intentionality, being more conscious of it as a parent. The best way for you to learn empathy yourself is to teach it to your child. Empathy is a muscle.

Agree on a time-out signal to use when emotions are running high. You can give it to your child or she can give it to you, and then each of you will take a break for a minute until you feel calmer. It’s an important thing for a parent to model, walking away until you’re calm. You’re demonstrating what calmness looks like. If you don’t do that, you can’t reach your child because you’re in a stressed-out moment yourself. When you feel calm, an easy beginning stage is to name the emotion. Help your child find the word. This means tuning into what the child is really feeling. You may think he’s stressed, but he says, “I’m excited.”

Q: What are the common barriers to empathy?

Borba: Several things are going on. First, there has been a seismic shift with macro changes to childhood. The sandbox used to be a natural place for empathy: your turn, and then my turn.

But play has been removed from our kids’ lives. Second is books. Literary fiction. Our children are reading far less for pleasure. Third, they’re looking down; they’re not looking up. They’re plugged in; they’re digital natives. You don’t learn emotions from emojis; you learn them from someone’s face. And emotional literacy is the gateway to empathy.

Gratuitous violence, scary news – it’s part of our children’s lives. If you only see the bad stuff, you see the world as a scary place. Check their optimism levels and expose them to the good stuff in the world. Those images can elevate a child’s heart so they see the world as a good place.

Another barrier is that we’re busy. We’re so stressed. We rob kids of the glorious moments to have empathy. Keep a box by your back door that’s just a charity box filed with gently used toys or books. Take the box to a needy family together. Every kid I interviewed said, “What was transformational was the moment I gave the charity box.”

Last, we’re always about GPA and resume-building and we don’t acknowledge our kids for goodness traits. Kids only hear messages about the importance of grades and scores, not about being good, caring people.

Q: What are parents surprised by with regard to empathy?

Borba: Parents are shocked that it can be cultivated. They think it’s locked into the genetic code. It’s never too late to build empathy. They’ll say, “My kid is 16” or “He’s already off in college.” Take a moment to look at what’s impeding your child’s empathy, and change one thing. It starts with us, not the kid. Find simple ways to weave it into your family, little routines or rituals that become a habit in your family.

Empathy takes different forms. There’s affective empathy, where you get teary-eyed and sad when watching “Bambi.” There is cognitive empathy – more serious and perspective-taking. And there’s empathic concern, where the kid wants to do something about a situation. Just because your child doesn’t display all three kinds of empathy doesn’t mean he or she is a lost cause.

Q: Can you briefly touch on the nine habits of empathy?

Borba: When I combed 10 years of research, I realized that empathy is made up of competencies. It starts with emotional literacy, the gateway to empathy. That starts at about an hour of age. The second is moral identity. You start acknowledging kindness and caring. Third is perspective-taking, which develops around 8 years of age. It’s stepping into the other person’s shoes, seeing things from their perspective. What do you think he feels? What do you think he needs?

The fourth competency is moral imagination: reading books that are emotionally charged because they access the part of the brain where compassion is found. Fifth is self-regulation: learning stress-regulation tools closes the empathy gap. Sixth, practicing kindness. Empathy is stretchable, and the more you practice kindness, the more your mindset will change.

Collaboration is the seventh competency. Moving to a “We” world, not a “Me” world. Parents can help here. Cheer the team and not just your kid. Stress team-building and how you play together. Then comes moral courage, helping kids step in and speak out. Nine is altruism – the kid who wants to be the change-maker, not win the Nobel Prize.

Dr. Borba presented as part of PEP’s Noted Parenting Author Series in May 2020, 9 Character Habits for Children’s Success with author Michele Borba. Click here to access the webinar recording and handouts.

Katherine Reynolds Lewis is a Maryland-based journalist, PEP-certified parent educator and author of “The Good News About Bad Behavior: Why Kids Are Less Disciplined Than Ever – And What to Do About It.”

This article originally appeared in the May 2020 edition of Washington Parent Magazine and is shared here with permission.

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