In 2016, one of the leading empathy researchers in the world, Dr. Michelle Borba, published a book entitled “Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World.” The book opened with a simple, yet well-researched notion. Empathy is a huge key in positive outcomes for our youth and all people. Unlike certain inborn traits, like intelligence, studies have repeatedly found that empathy can and must be taught, and as it improves, so does the course of individuals and communities. Research have repeatedly found that the ability to ‘’put ourselves in another’s shoes” affects health, happiness, wealth, relational satisfaction, prosocial behaviors, and even resiliency. It is an also an effective tool against bullying, prejudice, and aggression. Even more so, it has been found as a predictor for achievement outcomes, such as math test scores, and critical thinking abilities. As detailed in the book, Harvard Business Review even named it as one of the “essential ingredients for leadership success and excellent performance.”
And yet, despite the incredible promise that empathy has, the book goes on to detail the bad news of our current situation. As Oxford Dictionaries named “selfie” the Word of the Year in 2014 (with the world’s use of the term increasing 17,000 percent in one year), evidence has become clear that we live in an era of me. As Borba stated, it has created “the most entitled, competitive, self-centered, and individualistic breed on record. In what she described as the “Selfie Syndrome”, she highlighted four primary reasons we should all be concerned. One, evidence indicates a significant rise in narcissism among college students, and adolescents are 40% less empathetic than 3 decades ago. Two, clear increases in peer cruelty and bullying have been documented, often occurring online, with one study indicating a 52% increase in just a four year period. Three, experts have noted increases in cheating behaviors and a decrease in moral reasoning; 70% of Americans admit to cheating. Finally, Borba notes that our “plugged in, high pressure culture” is directly linked to a health epidemic among youth and young adults. Today, 20% of youth meet criteria for a mental health disorder in their lifetime. Our youth may be bright and self-assured, but in addition to being more entitled and narcissistic, “today’s kids are also the most self-centered, saddest, and stressed on record.”
Like the variable of self-control, empathy is not just one of the most malleable, teachable characteristics that exists, it is also one of the most important. Evidence indicates that it can be taught at any age, but there is no doubt that the first twenty years, when the brain undergoes new cortical growth, is clearly a sensitive period. Still, while the research clearly conveys its inestimable value, we find ourselves at impasse. It’s one thing to say that “cultivating we” is important; it is another thing to see this come to fruition, especially in our homes. While researchers such as Borba can arm us with tools to aid in this pursuit (and I encourage parents to check out her book), all of us as parents (even as a child psychologist) must be honest about forces that are creating a culture of entitlement and narcissism with our kids. Although well beyond the scope of this article, each day is a cauldron of “me” —- by the time our kids have reached the age of two, they have seen thousands of pictures of themselves; while youth sports can teach a number of positive attributes, it is also a breeding ground for spoiled child athletes (increasingly featured on ESPN). In our desire as parents to (understandably) provide our kids with “everything they need” and remove pain and disappointment as much as possible, all of this is invariably sending one precarious message: the world revolves around you.
While I recognize there are countless subtleties and individualities not captured here, I hardly know a parent today who isn’t concerned about the entitlement shown in his or her kids. As entitlement without empathy is a clear precursor to narcissism, and narcissism is a precursor to all sorts of intrapersonal and interpersonal problems, we as parents are pressed to consider that while all of our children are “special”, it is important they know they are no more special than any other person. Nurturing should not be equated with coddling; love should not be synonymous with absorption (including parental absorption). As we have noted to our kids, the most important day in this household was not the day any of us were born; it was the nuptial day we became “we.”
Beyond all the worldly reasons this is a critical conversation to foster, there is a deeply spiritual reason we must play close attention to the cultivation of we versus me. It has long been known that pride is the root of all vices; what we can’t forget is that it is also the root of narcissism, and the antithesis of empathy. Recognizing that each of us are God’s masterpiece is a vital identity to behold; not recognizing that masterpieces require tons of work and development, and that one masterpiece is not better than another, is a real threat to our soul and that of our kids. It seems that God’s design of our mind, body, and spirit demands that we truly understand that each of us is a brother or sister to another.
The great news is that empathy can be taught, even to individuals from war-torn countries or violent, inner city neighborhoods. The challenge is that many of us live and parent in an all-about-me world. I must admit that as a parent, it is one of the biggest worries and challenges that I find myself struggling with each day. But somewhere deep within the neurons and our households, I am convinced that it is possible to honor our kids as gifts from God while also teaching them that they are but just one piece of this large, complicated cosmos. Catch me in a few years and I will let you know how the empathy-building is going around here. In the meantime, I am off to see how I can “rally the troops” for 20 minutes of another team-building exercise (chores, of course).