Focusing on the Other Side of the Report Card in 2017:
A New Year Empathy Pledge for Worried Parents
The school year may be halfway over, but a new year is right around the corner.
Just in time for 2017, parenting expert Michele Borba asks parents to dedicate themselves to raising empathetic kids—and offers a pledge reminding parents that in a success-driven society, teaching kindness and caring counts more than ever.
It's time to reassess your goals and priorities for the days ahead. And if you're like most parents, you probably have some resolutions in mind to help you better prepare your children for their future success and happiness. As you ponder changes you may wish to make in the new year, consider the following question: Do your kids really care about others? All parents want to be able to give a resounding yes without hesitation. Yet, if we're honest, too many of us have to stop and think about it—and when we do, we often reach a troubling conclusion.
America is raising a generation of kids who can't see past their smartphones and jam-packed schedules of "enriching" activities to notice the human beings in front of them who need kindness and friendship. (Real friendship, not the Instagram version.) In fact, studies show that today's teens are 40 percent less empathetic than those of 30 years ago. Could it be that we've focused too much on grades and grit and neglected the other side of the report card—our kids' ability to connect and get along with others?
To recognize this empathy deficit in young people in general is one thing. To see it in your own child is quite another.
If you're deeply troubled by the realization that your kids don't seem to care, you're not alone. Over and over, researchers are finding that empathy is THE cornerstone for becoming a happy, well-adjusted, successful adult. Studies show without a doubt that possessing empathy makes you more likable …and it even increases your life span
Even parents who haven't read the research instinctively realize that kids need the capacity to care. They're living the problem. They know exactly how bad it feels. They deplore the endless duck-face selfies, the disrespectful remarks, the materialism, the unwillingness to help with chores, the elbowing-to-the-front competitiveness. And yet despite their best efforts, they simply can't move the needle on their children's behavior.
No parent wants to raise an uncaring child. Yet we feel helpless not to because we don't raise our kids in a vacuum. There are very real forces out there crushing the empathy out of our kids: social media, the bad influence of kids whose parents don't hold them accountable, our own tendency to helicopter parent. But there are some things we CAN control—and how we reward and recognize success in our kids is a great place to start.
That's why I'm urging you to take an empathy pledge in 2017: This year I will pay more attention to the OTHER side of the report card.
I'm referring here to your child's literal conduct grade, yes, but not just that. I'm talking about whether your child is a bully or stands up to bullies, whether he snickers at mean-spirited jokes or denounces them, whether he works together with peers or undermines them, whether he shares what he has freely or hoards it. Yes, academics are still the metric by which the world judges success. I get that and I'm sure you do, too. But this lopsidedness is beginning to change. In fact, some schools, including Harvard, are reshaping their admissions processes to reduce some of the academic pressure and encourage service, caring, and reflection.
I am hopeful that such moves to encourage empathy will multiply. We need to fan the sparks we're seeing until they catch fire and spread. We need a national conversation about moving our focus to the other side of the report card. Like all conversations, it starts at home…and I can't think of a better time to start than right now.
A few tips to keep in mind as you take the empathy pledge:
- Stop over-emphasizing straight A's… Your kids know when you value academic success over all else. When you harp on grades and test scores and rarely mention sharing, caring, and kindness, they get the message. (There's a Harvard study that backs me up!)
- Start talking up empathy. Model caring behavior for your child (of course) but also talk about it. Explain what empathy is, what it looks like in action, and what she can do or say to express it. And tell her in no uncertain terms that you will be watching how she behaves toward siblings, friends, teachers, parents, and even strangers.
- Don't just listen to what they say; watch what they do. Your child likely has two personas: the one he shows to friends and on social media and the one he shows to you and/or his teachers. Sure, he'll tell you that he's being kind and inclusive, but don't take his word for it. Observe him when he isn't aware. Read his texts. Listen in on his calls. You'll quickly find out the truth.
- Put kids in situations where they can practice empathy. Empathy is a skill set, one that can be taught and nurtured at any age. Get kids involved in a service organization or just spend time baking cookies and, together, deliver them to an elderly neighbor. Make empathy-building a regular part of their life. You want to hardwire it.
- When you see a positive change, acknowledge it. Don't give your child money or "stuff" in exchange for showing empathy. (Talk about sending the wrong message!) Do praise her, hug her, or maybe even take her out for an ice cream date and tell her how proud you are to be the mom of such a caring child.
- Start putting pressure on schools to emphasize empathy. It's possible your child's school no longer measures conduct at all—or at least it's seldom mentioned in the classroom. If this is going to change, it's up to you.
Let the new year serve as a reminder that change is possible! When parents band together, we have tremendous power. MADD, for instance, dramatically lowered drunk driving rates. When parents set out to bring up our nation's math and science scores a couple decades ago, they came up. What we focus on gets done—so let's focus on raising a generation of kind, caring, empathetic, successful kids.
- The 2017 Empathy Pledge This year I will pay attention to the other side of the report card.
- I'll reward kindness. Caring. Sharing. Teamwork.
- I'll make it clear that while grades do matter, empathy matters too.
- I'll teach my child to encourage the classmate who struggles,
- To cheer on the kid who missed the goal,
- To pick the kid who never gets picked,
- To make friends outside the "exclusive" group,
- To sit with the kid who's shy or awkward or different,
- To comfort someone who is having a bad day,
- To notice when kids are hurting and try their best to help,
- And I, as a parent, pledge to raise an Unselfie who thinks "we," not "me."
- I'll set the right example for my child in all I do and say,
- Because I can't talk anyone into caring…I can only walk the path and hope they follow.
Michele Borba, Ed.D., is the author of Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World and is an internationally renowned educational psychologist; a former classroom teacher; and an expert in parenting, bullying, and character development. She is an award-winning author of 22 books translated into 14 languages. One of the foremost authorities on childhood development in the country, she is a regular NBC contributor who has appeared over 130 times on the TODAY show and has been featured as an expert on Dateline, The View, Dr. Phil, NBC Nightly News, Fox & Friends, Dr. Oz, and The Early Show, among many others. She lives in Palm Springs, California, with her husband, and she is the mother of three grown sons. See www.micheleborba.com