Child(ish) Reads: Unselfie

There are a ton of articles about the major differences between Boomers, Millennials, Gen X and Gen Z; and how social media and screen time have driven huge cultural and sociological shifts. Now that Millennials are becoming parents, we have a very real fear: Fear that our kids could grow up to be really self-centered a**holes.

I think our most recent election is a prime example of how empathy influences our actions, our representatives, and our policies moving forward.

Here are some quick facts:

  1. Empathy means a person can recognize, understand and express their own emotions, as well as be attune to the emotions of others. Not just having touchy-feely feelings.
  2. Girls are more likely to be empathetic because parents talk about feelings more openly with daughters than with sons.
  3. Many people blame social media and screens for creating narcissistic zombie kids, but there is much, much more to the rising empathy gap.

Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World
By Michele Borba, Ed.D.

Instead of giving you a play-by-play review of this great book, I want to talk about the things that stuck with me; the great content that not only will help me raise my daughters for the future, but also can shed light on many adults in the present.

Takeaway #1: Parents are the biggest influencers in a child’s life.

Screen time, violent video games, what the kids learn in school; yes, all of that does play a role in your child’s personality and development. However, the single greatest influence on a child’s life is their parents. Kids take their cues on how to do and approach things directly from you. So when you say things under your breath, or yell and scream angrily at sporting events, or have a bad interaction with wait staff, your child will pick up on that and emulate it.

The good news is that this goes both ways. You want to cut screen time in your house, set the example and get off your own phone. You want to show your child how to give back to the community, bring them along to donate food or time to a food bank, or have them help you with a community trash pickup.

Babies are born with a sense of empathy and compassion, but that doesn’t mean it sticks around forever. Empathy is a muscle that must be developed early on, and as a parent role model, this is something that needs be intentional, from the toddler stage through the teenage years. Parents are vital in shaping a child’s moral identity and empowering moral courage.

Takeaway #2: Co-regulation

In our Hidden Senses series, we talked about Interoception. This is how we read our physiological cues and lay the groundwork for our own emotional self-regulation. Our #FunFact was even how interoception taught in schools can help increase learning and social engagement. The kids in these classes already have a boost on empathy because they are able to identify their own emotions. The breathing and calming techniques they’re learning help them deal with stress and anxiety, in and out of the classroom. So when a classmate is having a tough time at home for example, they can actually help him “breathe it out” and support him in a very real way.

Simply asking “How would you feel if that were you?”, is a key way we shift perspectives and build empathy with another. However, we cannot put ourselves in another person’s shoes without first knowing our own emotions. Many OTs talk about naming feelings so that kids can better grasp what their body and brain are going through and have the vocabulary to express it. This is also how we lay the groundwork for emotional literacy, stress management, self-awareness, and coping.

Takeaway #3: Read

I am the oldest of nine cousins. A couple years ago, when I asked my little cousins what they’re reading, my heart sank a bit when they told me they didn’t like reading. I also work for a book publisher, so I mean it when I say it was a huge blow to my soul.

One-fifth of students say they would be embarrassed being caught with a book. However, studies show that kids who read, specifically literary fiction, are more empathetic. Reading for pleasure is not just an indicator of future success, but it also changes the brain by stimulating emotions. It activates imagination, character building and role-playing, allowing kids to put themselves in another’s shoes.

Books and media are great ways to introduce emotional literacy to your kids. Growing up, we didn’t have a lot of books in the house, but I watched a lot of Full House and Family Matters. I don’t think losing TGIF is responsible for the empathy gap, but those shows provided great example of how to deal with conflicting emotions and moral dilemmas.

So when you’re watching a movie or reading a book with your kids, pause and ask, “Why do you think this character is so sad?”, “What would you do in that situation?”, and “How would you help?”. Help your child connect with the characters and talk out their responses. This not only helps them build empathy, but it also breaks down barriers so that they become more comfortable sharing their emotions with you.

Also some good tips:
1) Let them pick out their own books. They are more likely to make connections when they are excited about the reading material.
2) Working back to Takeway #1: If you want your kid to like reading, they need to see you reading first.
3) Try reading a book together, specifically when they are older. Think of it like family book club.
4) For more on reading, check out How to Raise a Reader by Pamela Paul and Maria Russo.

Takeaway #4: Think “Us”, Not “Them”

When we think about bullies, there’s often a clear line of good guys and bad guys. The good guys vanquish the evil doers and everything is right in the world. But in real life, especially on the playground, this is never the case.

It can be very difficult to switch out of the “Me versus You” mindset, even as adults. One of the biggest ways to encourage a We/Us perspective is having recess. When kids play together, especially in a diverse group, they begin to work together. They learn diplomacy, teamwork skills, and conflict resolution. It’s also worth noting that recess is unstructured play, not sports. In recess, kids can build their own executive function instead of relying on a coach to make the rules. So while scheduling after-school sports keeps kids busy and active, it doesn’t take the place of free play with friends.

The book gives an example of one PE teacher’s class. If there are any conflicts on the field that can’t be resolved by talking it out, the students involved use Rock Paper Scissors. Whoever wins, wins. No hard feelings on either side. It also helps kids get over their conflicts faster.

Collaborative work also helps build empathy in school-aged kids. More teamwork projects help students build social skills, delegate and take responsibility for their individual parts, and assist others if they are struggling. 

These concepts help kids switch their mindset away from being self-centered to being a part of a household, part of a class, and part of the greater community. We’re all in this together.

Takeaway #5: Make It Personal and Let them Lead

The last section of the book talks about empathy creating changemakers. Big lesson here: Overparenting does not create Changemakers. You can’t just tell your kid to help the world. They need to genuinely empathize and connect, on a personal level, to someone with a problem to solve. It could be seeing a homeless man on the street, or a classmate who can’t afford glasses, or stray animals without shelter.

When your child wants to do something to help a cause, your best role is as their assistant. Start small and let them grow their own plan organically. You can go through your home for supplies, or email your friends and neighbors about your kid’s new project, or connect with your employer or school to help expand the plan into the community, but they need to lead the way. Let your child take ownership of their plan, and let them know that you support them 100%.


There is a lot more in this book that I could talk about. I listened to it on Audible and was constantly taking notes and rewinding. Dr. Borba shares so many stories and case studies, as well as easy suggestions for empathy builders at toddler, school age, and teenage levels. It’s a great read about overall parenting and child development as well.

Here are a few recent podcast links if you want a bit more to preview:

Raising Good Humans: Essential Habits that Build Empathy With Best Selling Author, Dr. Michele Borba

Sunshine Parenting: Unselfie

The Parent Practice Podcast: Michele Borba – Raising empathetic children in an all-about-me world

The author also has a Reading Guide for parents if you are into guided reading or book clubs. Michele Borba also has a TEDx Talk on YouTube.

Hope you like it!

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