The psychologist and parenting expert Michele Borba says society’s fixation with the selfie is having some unintended consequences. She sees children mimicking not-so-nice behavior in adults and fewer grown-ups calling them out.
In “UnSelfie: Why Empathic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World,” her 23rd book, Dr. Borba combines scientific research with tales from real-world families and offers concrete tips on how to cultivate kindness.
We talked recently about “selfie syndrome,” ways to flip the focus away from the self and specific activities to build empathy in our children. Here is an edited excerpt of our conversation.
You suggest in the book that technology disrupts kids’ emotional lives. How?
You have to have face-to-face connection in order to read emotional cues and experience where the other person is coming from. If the average kid is plugged in – let’s just say what Common Sense Media says is 7.5 hours a day – you’re not having the opportunities to look face-to-face. You can do that in FaceTime. You can do that in Skype. It’s not like you’re throwing the entire thing out. It’s finding ways to make sure there are opportunities where your child won’t lose the critical core skills of not only empathy but connection and social skills. We’ve failed to realize that all of those social skills are learned and they need practice. What we’re not doing is helping our kids practice.
Your book talks about kids and their often-inflated egos. Is this a repercussion of the 1980s self-esteem movement?
Yes. Unfortunately, we misinterpreted self-esteem. I wrote five books on self-esteem, but my whole concept of self-esteem was it was layered. Real self-esteem is a balance between two things. One part is feeling worthy and likable. The other part is being capable to handle life – having the skills and competence.
What we did on the self-esteem bandwagon is we did the whole thing of helping the child feel worthy but without the competence; it backfires. Our praise, if we keep focusing on you, after a while, the kid begins to forget there’s others in the world. And the other thing is they become more and more dependent upon us. We kind of bubble-wrapped the child. We helicoptered them and we didn’t teach them the skills to be able to cope. We’re going to have to re-tilt the balance.
Let’s talk discipline. You cite a lot of problems with approaches like spanking and yelling, which are known as detrimental. But what’s wrong with time outs?
Time out works if you do it the right way. It’s impossible to discipline wisely or well if you’re in distress or your kid is in distress. It’s better to say, “Let’s separate from each other and let’s calm ourselves down.”
But just sitting alone doesn’t help the kid think through the impact of his actions on others. When your kid comes back out, you need to say, “I’m disappointed in you. I expected better of you because I see you as a caring person. How would you feel if that were you? What are you going to do differently next time?” That’s the piece that research says we may be missing.
Just what is “selfie syndrome?”
Self-absorption kills empathy. Narcissism is “it’s all me.” Empathy is feeling with someone. Empathy is always “we, it’s not me.” The problem is kids are tuning into themselves, and what we need to do is flip the lens and start looking at others. We started to emphasize one side of the report card and we forgot the other side, which is “You’re also a caring human being.” Let’s redefine success so it’s not just a GPA, but it’s also a kid who has heart.
You suggest that some activities, such as chess, reading, watching movies and recess, boost not only academic achievement but increase empathy. Why?
Chess is about perspective taking. Kid are not thinking of themselves. They start thinking of others. New research on reading shows that emotionally charged literary fiction like “Charlotte’s Web” or “To Kill a Mockingbird,” where the kid can catch the feelings of the character, makes the child not only smart but nice. Chapter books (such as the “Frog and Toad” series) are short and easy, and more parents are skipping literary fiction in favor of a chapter book because they think it will boost their kid’s vocabulary and reading comprehension. What they’re missing is the rich moral dilemma. Movies and literature are the same. Think of the kind of movie that stirs your heart, like “Dumbo.”
Following are some of Dr. Borba’s tips for how to flip the focus and cultivate kindness.
- When your children walk out the door, remind them to do one or two kind things each day.
- Show that you value kindness. Do not just ask, “What you get on your test today?” but, “What kind thing did you do?”
- Praise your kids for being kind in the moment – when they have earned it: “That was being kind because you offered your toy to your friend.”
- Make kindness a regular happening. Put a box by your front door for gently used items and when it fills up, drop it off together for a needy family.
Sign up for the Well Family newsletter to get the latest news on parenting, child health and relationships with advice from our experts to help every family live well.