Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Parenting Pointers: Empathy

Bullying and cyberbullying is on the rise. Face-to-face interpersonal skills are declining. Narcissism is increasing. Not only do studies show these distressing facts to be true, but we see them in the news and in our own lives. Lynne Azarchi, Executive Director of Kidsbridge Tolerance Center, has the answer to these growing problems: teaching our children empathy. In her new book, THE EMPATHY ADVANTAGE: Coaching Children To Be Kind, Respectful and Successful , Azarchi provides the tools and strategies families can use to give their kids the gift of empathy – simultaneously setting them on the road for a more successful future and changing the world for the better.

Why empathy? Research demonstrates that people who can “read” feelings and other nonverbal cues are more emotionally adjusted, better liked, and more successful. They make better leaders, have lower rates of substance abuse, and higher levels of academic achievement. “Teaching empathy – the ability to ‘walk in someone else’s shoes’ and understand what people different from ourselves see and feel – is one of the greatest foundations and skills that you can bestow upon your child,” says Azarchi.

THE EMPATHY ADVANTAGE lays out proof that empathy can be taught and explains the brain science behind it, addressing how the rise in “screen time” and the drop in face-to-face interaction is contributing to the decline in empathy. The author then shares a multitude of tips and techniques for counteracting this trend with children from toddlerhood through their teens. These include:
• Reading Hour – Sneak empathy lessons into your reading time with your preschoolers. Ask them how they think characters in the stories feel, what they think of the choices the characters make, and what they might do in the same situation.
• Praising Kindness – “Catch your kids in the act of being kind and make them want to be so again and again,” writes Azarchi. Acknowledging your kids’ caring behavior will help them understand that these actions are valued and encourage them to do more of them.
• Family Meetings – They can be as short as fifteen minutes, but these meetings can foster empathy, self-esteem, and self-compassion. They will evolve as children age, but can include silly icebreakers, sharing favorites (family activities, hobbies, foods), and discussing questions like, “Do you think our home can be more peaceful” or “Are their ways we can help each other?”
• Media Literacy – Limit your children’s screen time, and watch shows with them whenever possible. Discuss what they learned from the program, and what they thought about the characters’ behaviors.
• Role Playing – Pretending to be other people is an ideal way to “walk in someone else’s shoes.” Some role-playing scenarios the author suggests include: a new girl in school eating alone; a child being teased because his or her family can’t afford cool sneakers; a boy being mocked for taking dance lessons.
• Service Learning – While community service is a great thing, service learning is even better. “Service learning involves both discussion and evoking feelings for kids to understand what it feels like to be hungry, what it feels like to not know where their next meal is coming from, or what it feels like to be in a homeless shelter,” explains Azarchi.

The book also addresses the dynamics of bullying and how children can stand up for themselves and others; managing media in the home; the value of pets in nurturing empathy; the importance of active listening; and self-compassion – the ability to forgive oneself – as the foundation for empathy. Throughout, the author emphasizes the importance of starting early and spending quality face-to-face time with children, while also making clear how busy parents can make time to do this.

I had a chance to interview the author to learn more.

Why might people think that empathy can't be taught?
In 2008, when I first became interested in empathy as Director of the Kidsbridge Tolerance Center near Trenton, New Jersey, I was told that empathy could not be taught. Undaunted, I started researching, looking for psychological studies. I found a few studies that measured a rise in empathy after interactive face-to-face activities and my unique journey began.

Since then I have developed programs that we’ve used to teach empathy to more than 30,000 students and educators. I’ve put all of that knowledge into my new book The Empathy Advantage which includes tips and techniques for both parents and educators.

I show that you can teach empathy in as little as twenty minutes a week. A little effort, using proven and effective methods, with a dose of fun, can transform your child into a more sensitive, caring human being.

Why does screen time have an effect on empathy?
Increased screen time and reduced face-to-face time have rendered our children less empathetic, and certainly a lot meaner. Bullying and cyberbullying for youth have been on the rise, especially in the last four years.

In my book The Empathy Advantage, I share what I have learned teaching kids for more than 20 years about how media snuck up on us. Algorithms control what our children see and ‘push out’ more conflict-oriented and nastier videos, GIFs and memes, including ‘reality shows’ which focus on back- stabbing, competition, gossip, exclusion, and embarrassment. Research psychologists tell us that screen time starts too early and is not developmentally appropriate; media is used by many as a babysitter. By the teen years, many youth spend more time on screens than sleeping. Addiction is becoming an increasing problem for youth around the world, and with many video games being violent or disrespectful, it crowds out any chance for empathy to develop.

According to Jarron Lanier, a tech guru: Social media destroys our capacity for empathy and concludes, “What’s really going on is that we see less than ever before of what others are seeing, so we have less opportunity to understand each other.”

Parents and caregivers can be poor role models if they would rather be on their own phones, than spend some face-to-face quality time with their kids.

Children frequently have their first experience with violence when watching television, a movie, or playing a video game. It introduces them early to pain and suffering. So, it’s no wonder that they get desensitized to emotion early. Too much screen time desensitizes our kids, and we want to reverse that as soon as possible because it crowds out the sensitivity and empathy, they need to be successful in school and careers. You can do it. My book guides you to chart your screen time and work proactively to reduce media to healthy levels.

How can parents model active listening?
One of the most important activities for increasing empathy for youth that I describe in my book The Empathy Advantage is active listening. It communicates that you care about what is being shared and suggests that you:
  • ask open-ended questions,
  • reflect another’s feelings (show understanding for how they feel),
  • clarify, and
  • summarize what you hear.
Active listening is an important commitment for you to make to your family members because you are valuing what each person has to say. It will help in all relationships, including with friends, family members, and colleagues, as well as in job interviews and team and career skills.

Among the tips for an effective listener are: good eye contact and good listening posture. Part of that is to have your kids put their phones down, I’d add --don’t be surprised by pushback! Active listening is not a multitasking sport.

At the Tolerance Center, we sometimes recommend engaging in ‘Pair Shares’ (simply, two persons working together) to practice respect and instill empathy. You can do this in your home with a child, spouse, or friend:

While face to face, one person talks, and the other demonstrates both attentiveness and good eye contact.

Reflect back what you heard or ask related questions about what the person expressed.

Adam Bryant from the NY Times coaches: “Listening, done well, is an act of empathy.”

Why is self-compassion an important component of empathy?
Before we can ask our kids or students to have empathetic concern a.k.a. actively show concern for others, Job One is that the learn empathy for themselves. I am not talking about whining for candy or calling ‘shotgun’ for the front seat, I am talking about that they learn to take care of themselves emotionally when they: make a mistake, get excluded, get bullied, or called a name. The research studies and experts that I quote in my book The Empathy Advantage indicate there are many benefits for those with self-compassion, which refers to being kind to yourself. It is a great way to improve your mental health and the well-being of those around you. And you will not be surprised when I say that the way to increase self-compassion is, yes, empathy! I extol empathy for others, but first your kids need to learn to be empathetic to themselves.

Please note that I dodge the concept of self-esteem. Parenting in the ‘80s taught us the lesson of over-praising our children. My daughter used to stand on the soccer field socializing and she still got a trophy. Diametrically different to self-esteem, self-compassion prepares them better to be self-advocates for an ever changing and challenging world.

As we know, growing up is full of challenges and self-compassion is where we need to start. I think Fred Rogers says it best:
“Knowing that we can be loved exactly as we are gives us all the best opportunity for growing into the healthiest of people.”

There’s a lot of Mr. Rogers in THE EMPATHY ADVANTAGE; he inspired my journey to help adults and kids; Just a small-time investment with empathy will reap big rewards for your child or student.

LYNNE AZARCHI, author of THE EMPATHY ADVANTAGE, is Executive Director of Kidsbridge Tolerance Center outside of Trenton, New Jersey—a nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering bullying prevention, anti-bias, diversity appreciation, empathy, and empowerment strategies for youth. She is a tireless advocate for improving the lives of at-risk youth in communities across New Jersey. Kidsbridge helps more than 2,500 preschool, elementary, and middle school students and educators improve their social-emotional skills each year. Azarchi has won many awards and her articles have been published both in newspapers and academic journals. She is a frequent speaker to parent and teacher groups, corporations and major educational conferences.

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