With Kids’ Empathy on the Decline, Books and Talking Help

(Photo: Pixabay, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Pixabay, Creative Commons)

Parents know what it's like when their child does something wrong and they try to get the youngster to apologize. The child usually refuses to do so, but finally might get a very soft "sorry"out, which by no means conveys empathy and was said to get the parents off their backs.

Kelly Wallace of CNN writes that parents seem to be unable to find a way to have their children learn from the incident, make sure the children do not repeat the offense, and have the kids empathize with the other person.

CNN asked parents to act out how they would manage these encounters and had a parenting expert listen to their interaction and give some feedback.

One Atlanta mom said that if anyone bothers her son's Lego creations, he can become explosive. His reaction is based on what he sees as someone coming into his space, so he does not understand why he should apologize. Trying to get him to apologize for his tantrum in that moment, she added, is just futile.

Erik Fisher, a psychologist, and co-author of The Art of Empowered Parenting: The Manual You Wish Your Kids Came With, said this mother should help her son calm down by talking to him in a quiet voice and asking him how he might be able to show his friend that he was sorry.

A study by the University of Michigan found that college freshmen were 40% less empathetic than they were 30 years ago. The research analyzed nearly 14,000 college students over this period.

A new book, "Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World," by educational psychologist Michele Borba, is based on decades of interviews and research with over 500 kids. She agrees that technology is part of the problem, but she adds that there is too much emphasis on academic success and too little on emotional and social development.

After the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, author Kate DiCamillo was in Orlando at a book signing where she met a teacher who said she could only think of reading aloud to her class after the tragedy. She told the author that she read DiCamillo's "The Tale of Despereaux."

The book, which won a Newbery Medal, is full of hope and compassion. The teacher said the children hung on every word of the story. The author said:

"We need stories now more than ever."

Parents are finding it tougher to talk with their children about the violence and vitriol that is so prevalent in the world today. Amy Joyce of The Washington Post says reading to kids from books that explain how parents want them to understand the world can instruct young people in how to be part of the solution.

"When you read these books aloud, you can tell from their expressions that they are empathetic in relating to these characters. They understand what the characters are feeling," said Sharon Rawlins, youth services specialist at the New Jersey State Library and president of the Collaborative Summer Library Program.

When mothers and fathers take time out to read to their children, it helps their comprehension, vocabulary, and reading skills. Few know, however, that reading aloud to kids strengthens their emotional IQs as well.

Jessica Alexander, a reporter for Salon, researched facts for her book "The Danish Way of Parenting: What the Happiest People in the World Know About Raising Confident, Capable Kids" in Denmark. She and her co-author, Iben Sandahl, interviewed students and teachers to learn what they do in schools and homes to encourage empathy. In the Danish education system, empathy is considered equally as important to teach to children as math or literature. Empathy is intertwined in the curriculum from preschool through high school. And since empathy is central to improving social connections, and feeling connected is a major factor in being happy, the Danes seem to be doing something right.

From the first day of school in Denmark, when students are six-years-old until they graduate at age sixteen, students have a period once a week called "Klassen Time" or "the Class' Hour." Everyone gathers in a comfortable spot to talk about any problems they may be having. The class, as a whole, attempts to find a solution. And when there are no problems to discuss, the class just gathers to relax and be cozy. There is even a Class Time Cake with a particular recipe. which the young ones take turns bringing to the Klassen Time.

Other ideas for nurturing empathy, according to PopSugar, include helping kids breathe properly to calm themselves down and creating a family mantra (a few words that define the family's worldview). Parents who want to develop empathy in their kids may consider reading books as a family that are heart-stirring, performing acts of kindness, and pointing out the emotions behind facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice.

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