• UnSelfie

    Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World

    by Michele Borba, Ed.D


    Synopsis: This book is a step-by-step guide to fostering empathy in children, which “is an effective antidote to bullying, aggression, prejudice, and racism” (p. xiv). Each chapter focuses on one of nine habits to instill in children to increase their ability to empathize. While the language is directed toward parents, there are aspects of each chapter which can be utilized by counselors at all grade levels. Each chapter is concise so I was left with a good understanding of the habit mentioned, the evidence of the habit’s effectiveness, and specific ways adults can implement the habit. I also enjoyed that Borba included her own first-hand accounts as well as the experiences of those that she interviewed.

    Habit #1: Tune into feelings

    Often a person’s true problem is not the issue at hand, but the feeling associated with the issue. Counselors and other adults can model and teach emotional literacy to help children understand their own feelings, which is necessary before they can empathize with someone else. 

    Page 20 offers a great example from a teacher who taught his students to empathize by making them aware of his emotions

    Habit #2: Develop a moral identity 

    Adults can help children to see others as fellow human beings and instill caring values. Adults in schools and at home can provide character-focused praised rather than solely focus on achievement. Asking children to describe their ‘best self’ helps them to formulate an identity. Parents can ask a child daily, “What did you do today that was your ‘best self’?”

    Habit #3: Take another’s perspective

    Adults can address an inappropriate act or behavior by focusing on the hurt it causes someone else. Ways to do this include asking the child to re-do their action or statement, role playing the scenario as the person on the receiving end of the inappropriate action, and listening to the other person before verbally demonstrating that you understand their thoughts or feelings. 

    This habit relies on the ability to tune into feelings (Habit #1).

    Habit #4: Develop a moral imagination through reading

    Literary fiction books which focus on characters’ lives and trials allows a person to understand those not ‘like us’. These books encourage the reader to figure out a character’s intentions and motivations.Adults can talk about their emotional reactions to a book or film with children to help them develop emotional literacy. A counselor might consider coordinating a book clubs for parents and children as they are a fun way to encourage reading and offer an opportunity to share emotional reactions to a variety of scenarios.

    Habit #5: Practice self-regulation

    “Anxiety and stress can sabotage empathy,” (p. 98).

    Children learn how to manage their emotions by watching how the adults in their lives respond to stressful situations. Page 113 provides a list of different ways to teach deep breathing, depending on the child’s age and interests. The author recommends having the child state the emotion (again, Habit #1) and rate their feelings.

    Habit #6: Prioritize kindness

    This chapter emphasizes the encouragement that adults need to give students in order for them to prioritize kindness. This seems like common sense, however studies show that parents often focus their attention on a student’s achievements and/or boosting their self-esteem. This encourages students to prioritize their achievements and promotes an individualistic worldview.

    In this chapter research is used to demonstrate how practicing kindness increases selflessness, happiness and popularity with others. 

    Strategies include: implementing a ‘two kind rule’ where families discuss the two kind things they did each day, simply pointing out kindness in others, and implementing a weekly family activity to spread kindness to neighbors, friends, or the community. This chapter promotes having conversations about kindness to instill the importance of this trait.

    Habit #7: Work as a team

    Teamwork allows us to imagine “being in the same boat rather than the same shoes as other people,” (p. 144). This chapter talks about the reduction in time for recess and play in general, in exchange for individual, academic activities or solitary screen time. On page 151, the author talks about collaborative, jigsaw learning where students each learn a different part of a lesson and then teach it to one another. Another strategy is to hold meetings (as a class, family, or school group) to discuss concerns and collaborate to find solutions which appeal to everyone. This is also a good time to show appreciation for the other members of this ‘team’. 

    A simple way for adults to emphasize teamwork consistently is to use ‘we’ and ‘us’ as much as possible in conversation.

    Habit #8: Be morally courageous

    “Morally courageous children are the true Unselfies: quiet, unsung heroes who don’t expect accolades and trophies, but who act on their concern for others out of moral beliefs,” (p. 172). 

    Students refrain from being upstanders for several reasons: they feel powerless (nobody has taught them how to stand up for others), adults have not explicitly explained the importance of being an upstander, they fear social repercussions, they believe someone else might step in instead, and fear of being the next target. 

    This chapter explained that students need models for upstanders which can come from books, movies, the news, and community.

    STANDUP: Seek support, Tell a trusted adult, Assist the victim, Negate with a positive view (i.e. dispel a rumor), Detour (don’t allow an audience to gather), Use a distraction (to divert the situation), Pause and rethink (help others understand the problem with the situation). 

    Habit #9: Make a difference 

    At this point, children will have a better understanding of empathy and need tools to allow them to practice empathizing. Help a child to identify a cause that has meaning for them and together brainstorm ways that they can make an impact. This should be a somewhat simple task, achievable, and local so the child can understand the impact that they make. “Changemaking often starts with empathy when an unexpected experience stirs a child’s heart and pushes her to do something that sometimes turns out to be remarkable for society,” (p. 207).


    Book review provided by Lauren Haines, Sonoma State University Graduate Student, Class of 2018.

    Updated 5/31/2018