“Unselfie” Your Kids


Want Your Kids to Care? Stop Stressing Them Out and Let Them Play This Summer!

By Michele Borba








America’s kids are more self-absorbed than ever. If their constant gaze
into the selfie camera isn’t proof enough, plenty of statistics and news
stories point to a fall in empathy, a rise in narcissism, and an epidemic
of bullying and cruelty. If you’re a decent parent, of course you want your
kids to stop with the “me me me” and start thinking “we”—and you’ll address
it as soon as you finish signing them up for three-days-a-week taekwondo,
sleepaway chess camp, and a full slate of summer college courses.

Hmmm…Could there be a link between brutal schedules and brutal (well, at
least self-centered) kids?

Too many parents are stressing the empathy right out of our kids. We do it
from a place of good intentions—in a hypercompetitive world we are
desperate to give our kids an edge—but all the pressure and all the
structured activities are causing more harm than we know.

Too much stress hurts kids’ mental health. One in five U.S. youth meets the
criteria for a mental disorder in their lifetime, and teen stress is now at
higher levels than that reported by adults. And as anxiety increases,
empathy wanes. Why? Because it’s hard to feel for others when you’re in
survival mode.

Parents don’t realize just how crippling a lack of empathy really is. But
in a global world, emotional intelligence and relationship skills are
everything—they’re what allow employees to engage, communicate,
collaborate, and connect with people from other cultures.

Well, the capacity to care is an essential building block of these skills.
Kids develop it, in part, through unstructured, unsupervised free play.

Summer, of course, once revolved around free play: bikes, baseball,
swimming, or just hanging out with friends. But for many reasons—parental
emphasis on achievement, safety fears, the dependence on digital devices as
entertainment—those carefree days are long gone. Like childhood itself,
summer has become play-deprived and hypercompetitive.

We can’t turn back the clock, but we can infuse more fun, free play, and
empathy-building activities into our kids’ summer. Here are 10 suggestions:

Cut one activity to make room for play with friends. Eighty percent of kids
say they wish they had more free time; 41 percent admit feeling stressed
most of the time because they have too much to do. So sit down with your
child and his calendar at the beginning of summer and ask: Is there one
extra activity that can be cut to free up time to connect with peers and
practice social skills? Make sure “be with friends” is added to the agenda.
And when your child is with a pal, make it an “unplugged play date.”

Many of today’s children may never experience hopscotch, duck-duck-goose,
dodge ball, and freeze tag. Forty percent of American schools have either
eliminated daily recess or considered doing away with it to find more time
to prepare kids for tests. Kids enter summer break starved for play—so it’s
crucial that during these few short months we make up this deficit as much
as possible.








Choose a summer camp that emphasizes fun. (A diverse mix of campers doesn’t
hurt either!) Increasingly, parents view summer as a time to give kids an
extra academic edge. That’s why so many opt to send kids to a serious math
or computer camp instead of the kind where you swim in lakes, weave
lanyards, and sing around campfires. This is often a mistake. Kids need
time to relax and be in situations that force them to interact with other
kids—and if some of those other kids represent other races, cultures,
genders, and belief systems, so much the better.

Summer camps can and should be a fun opportunity to practice social skills.
Check out youth groups, YMCA, Boys & Girls Clubs, and Scouting, as well
as day, weekend, or month-long summer camps. Obviously, take your child’s
interests into account but also look for camps that will expand her
horizons and build character and social skills. It’s generally better NOT
to send her to camp with her best friend or even to send her to one where
everyone looks just like her—having fun with kids from a variety of
backgrounds really boosts empathy.

Force kids to “unplug” as much as possible. Did you know that the average
eight- to eighteen-year-old is plugged in to a digital media device about 7
hours and 38 minutes a day? And that doesn’t count time spent texting or
talking on cell phones. Even preschoolers spend 4.6 hours per day using
screen media, and almost 40 percent of two- to four-year-olds use a
smartphone, MP3 player, or tablet. These numbers are shocking, and they’re
a big part of the reason so many kids are lacking in empathy.

Too much online communication means that our kids will be less equipped to
develop skills to navigate their social world, learn emotional literacy,
and practice empathizing. So set specific times to remain ‘unplugged’—for
example, meal times, family meetings, and outings that involve other family
members. Announce those ‘sacred times’ and stick to them!

Oh, and set up family ‘dates’ where you ban electronics. Board games like
Monopoly, Clue, Chutes and Ladders, and Checkers are good, as are yard
games like catch and Frisbee. You’ll be teaching your child essential
collaborative skills while you have fun.









Steer them toward cooperative (not competitive) games. Collaborating is
about working for the team or family or group—and it means you can’t always
be first, win, or have your way. This lesson is increasingly rare in a
trophy-driven world that often pits one child against another.

Also, don’t underestimate old-fashioned strategies like flip a coin; rock,
paper, scissors; pick a number; draw straws; and eenie, meenie, miney, moe
in helping kids collaborate. They also help kids resolve questions like
‘Who goes first?” ‘Was the ball out of bounds?’ ‘What should we play?’ and
other issues that can derail cooperation. Kids need skills to curb conflict
and keep empathy open. Practice them together until your child can use them

Insist that kids read this summer. No matter how busy kids are playing,
there will (and should) be some quiet time in the summer. Most parents
would much rather their kids spend that time reading than playing video
games. And the great news is that not only does reading boost kids’
academic performance, it also boosts empathy. In fact, science finds that
people who read fiction are more capable of understanding others,
empathizing, and seeing another person’s point of view than those who read

Only a small percentage of children’s books published each year in the
United States are multicultural in nature. You may need to do a little
research to find them. Hopefully you can find a summer library program that
will expose them early to a variety of multicultural literature that
features positive images of all cultures and genders.









Hold summer family movie nights. Films can be portals to help our children
understand other worlds and other views, to be more open to differences,
and to cultivate new perspectives. Why not initiate a regular family movie
time? Just rent a stirring film—Charlotte’s Web, October Sky,
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
, or The Book Thief—pop the popcorn,
and make memories while discussing compassionate characters. Or start
neighborhood summer drive-in movies: Families take turns tacking a sheet
outside, plugging in the DVD player, spreading blankets on the lawn, and
showing a great empathy-building flick for the neighbor kids to watch.

Focus on face-to-face family interaction. We tend to focus more on the idea
that it’s interaction with peers that creates the foundation for caring and
getting along, but don’t overlook the value of dinner table discussions to develop
empathy. Family meals and even carpools are great settings to let children routinely
practice empathy builders like communicating,collaborating, and respecting each
other’s views—especially when they don’t agree with them.

Topics are endless: Just use your children’s world. Ask about conflicts at
school. Clip interesting articles from the newspaper. Discuss the new movie
reviews. Debate who is going to win that big game or the election (and who
really should). Then have siblings briefly rephrase the other’s feelings:
“So you feel…” or “You think…”

Find a place for kids to decompress. Even when kids feel empathy for
others, stress, anger, and shame can thwart their ability to express their
concerns. It’s yet another reason why our children need to learn to manage
strong emotions and find a place to relax or decompress. Yes, it should be
a literal place. Size doesn’t matter, but the spot should have a soothing
feel. It might have a beanbag or rocking chair, soft pillows, stuffed
animals, or a CD player.

Introduce it as a ‘place to calm down for every family member. Don’t let
kids equate it with discipline or ‘time out.’ You want them to want to
decompress. Once they learn the value of decompressing in the summer,
they’ll be more likely to use the strategy once school begins.

Issue a “serving others” challenge. Encourage your kids to find ways to
help others this summer. You can do community service as a family. Work at
a shelter. Deliver gently used possessions to charity. Pitch in together to
help the elderly neighbor rake her leaves. And don’t stop there: Urge them
to make serving others a part of their normal, expected routine. The more
they can make “caring about others” a part of their expected routine, the

Find simple daily ways to help your child think beyond himself. For
example, he can deliver the inbound neighbor’s paper, take the doggy for a
walk, help mom set the table, encourage teammates to make their goal, call
Grandma and let her know she’s not alone. These are all great ways to help
kids start emphasizing ‘we’ rather than ‘me.’








Issue each child a summer chore list. One of the best ways to help kids
develop an “unselfie” attitude is by assigning chores. After all, to really
be a team player in any group—be it family, sports, Scouting, church, club,
play, or academic—you must set aside your individual concerns for the needs
of the group, which are tough notions for kids who are too tightly wrapped
up in themselves.

Hopefully, kids have some chores all year long, but in the summer they
hopefully have more time to devote to them. It’s not unreasonable to ask
them to tackle bigger chores that impact the whole family, like yard work
and maybe projects like setting up an outside play area or decorating the
family room that everyone can enjoy.

The best summers are those that allow plenty of time for play with a bit of
old-fashioned work thrown in for good measure.

The idea is to help kids find a good balance of free play and hard work
that benefits other people. Both build empathy. Both will make for a summer
that’s fun, meaningful, and rewarding on a whole different level. And the
benefits will extend to when school doors open again to give our kids an
edge, in terms of academics and personal success.








15 Reasons Why Free Play Creates Empathy (and Other Valuable Life

· Play helps them destress, which in itself creates space for empathy.
(Kids who are anxious and stressed can turn off their empathy abilities to
go into “survival mode.”)

· It helps kids appreciate differences. (Hey, this kid on the playground
may have a different skin color, but we have a lot in common.)

· It forges friendships, strengthens social competence, and lets them
practice social skills like getting along, listening, and collaborating.

· It boosts self-confidence and helps kids learn to become masters of their
own destiny (without adults directing, pushing, managing, or scheduling).

· Play boosts children’s creativity and helps them imagine, invent, and
develop different perspectives about life.

· It stretches children’s attention spans and increases their ability to
focus on themselves and others.

· It helps kids hone their “perspective taking” skills to understand
others’ views and needs.

· Make-believe play helps kids step outside themselves and imagine the
thoughts and feelings of others.

· Play builds new competencies and lifelong hobbies and helps kids learn to
enjoy just being in their own company.

· It helps kids learn to find their voice so they can stand up for
themselves and others and practice leadership skills.

· It teaches kids how to share, negotiate, and compromise and resolve

· It promotes brain growth and makes kids smarter.

· It enriches their social, emotional, cognitive, and physical development.

· Play helps kids recognize others’ emotional states, tune up their
emotional literacy skills, and offers the potential to share feelings with

· Play creates joyful memories of childhood. Come on, no kid is going to
remember the worksheets and carpools; but swings, playing leapfrog, jumping
in the mud, blowing bubbles, building forts—those are the unforgettable
childhood moments.

About the Author
Michele Borba, Ed.D., 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.

Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World
is available at bookstores nationwide and from major online retailers. See

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