Teaching kids empathy
Dr. Michele Borba
Internationally recognized educator, speaker, and best-selling author of 24 books including Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me-World

Stress, anxiety, depression are at an all-time high, and it’s affecting our kids’ health, happiness, and their ability to relate to others. It’s time for an empathy tune-up — for the whole family. Dr. Michele Borba is an educational psychologist, a former school teacher, and an expert in bullying, character development, and child behavior. She’s written 24 best-selling books, including her latest, UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. Dr. Borba joins us to talk about the critical role parents play in teaching empathy to kids, whether they’re 2 or 20. She shares practical ideas for reducing stress and increasing empathy and altruism in our kids, and explains why it can be their greatest competitive advantage.


Listen to this episode to learn:

  • Tips for teaching kids how to hone their emotional literacy (the “gateway to empathy”) and enrich their emotional vocabulary
  • How to overcome the physical barriers that masks, FaceTime, and social distancing are placing on kids’ ability to connect and communicate with others (make eye contact!)
  • Navy SEAL-based breathing and relaxation techniques the whole family can practice to work through stressful situations and self-regulate negative emotions
  • Why hope and optimism are the keys to empathy, with a few inspirational stories of kids doing good deeds during the pandemic
  • Why our children need a whole lot more of “we got this”


For more information, visit https://micheleborba.com.


Click here to read the full episode

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Full Transcript

Teaching kids empathy

Intro: Welcome to the Equal Parts Podcast brought to you by Care@Work.

Emily Paisner: Being a working parent is hard. During these chaotic times, empathy is one of the most important things we can have and teach our children. Dr. Michele Borba is an accomplished educational psychologist, a former school teacher, and an expert in bullying, character development, and child behavior. She's the best selling author of 24 books, including her latest UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, a book about how to teach children empathy and kindness. She spent 10 years researching and writing it.

In this episode, we talked all about the benefits that kids realize when we teach them kindness, compassion, altruism, and yes empathy. Have a listen. Michelle, thank you so much for joining us today.

Dr. Michele Borba: You are so welcome. I'm so delighted to be here.

Emily Paisner: There's a lot that I want to talk about. Let's get right on to it. You've written a lot and talked a lot about how kids today are more self-absorbed than kids of previous generations. You've said that empathy is down and narcissism is up and you call this the empathy deficit. Can you talk a little bit about what factors are contributing to this?

Dr. Michele Borba: I think there's a number of factors. I think the first thing is we sometimes think empathy is soft and fluffy. When we fail to realize it's absolutely transformational. Once we realize how important it is, we put it onto our parenting plate. Right now it's all about the GPA and test scores. We're also at a time that's difficult, and that as stress is really building, as stress builds in our kids, empathy goes down.

We're also seeing that models is so important and a lot of the examples our kids are seeing right down doesn't help them in terms of realizing that empathy counts, and maybe some of our discipline. We also know that the quick timeout and the yelling doesn't help but it's really about helping kids know that empathy matters and kindness counts. The best news is empathy is something we can teach our kids. It can be cultivated. It's not locked into DNA. We just need to do a little bit better job.

Emily Paisner: How do we do that? How can we teach our kids to be more empathetic?

Dr. Michele Borba: The first thing is we realize it matters. The second thing is probably, Emily, the easiest. Tune it up in yourself because kids are watching us and I swear they come with a video camera quarter. They always play us back. What they really want to see is what kindness and caring and altruism look like, and the best way isn't through a lecture. It's through just natural seeing it in others or pointing it out in others. Good books we know, that's the simple as way. We do know that reading literary fiction, like Charlotte's Web, or Stone Fox or Wonder, or Harry Potter. Those are the ones that are so popular with children right now. There's also a real benefit.

Not only does reading help enhance their academic achievement, but it gets them in the shoes of somebody outside themselves. We do know it actually elevates their empathy levels, ours as well as our children. Just a couple of ideas that are so simple. A third one is just prioritize it in your own home. If you ask your kids right now, what matters most in our own home, if they don't say, "You want me to be kind mom", it just really means you may be not tuning it up nearly enough because kids act really how we want them to be and if they know that's important in our values, they're more likely to tune it up in themselves.

Emily Paisner: You call this emotional literacy and it would be helpful to understand different techniques that you might use to help your kids hone these skills depending on their age. I would imagine that if a child's a toddler versus more of an elementary school-age kid, that your approach might be a little bit different. Can you talk about that?

Dr. Michele Borba: Absolutely. it's different, but here's the first thing, what is emotional literacy? It's really the gateway to empathy because emotional literacy is really a child who can tune in to us or another person or looking on TV and go, "He sounds upset", or "She looks frustrated", or "He's really stressed." Kids need the A, B, Cs of just being able to read emotions. That said, when they get that they're more likely to act in a caring, compassionate manner. How do you teach it? Well, you start when our babies at a very young age. We do know that even infants mirror our face.

If we were to say, "What's the best toy to give to a baby?" It's a human face. Just start making those silly noises, making those funny sounds, making your face be happy and sad. By the age of two, we can start using, "Are you happy, are you sad?" Make your face look like you're really sad, watching and reading those wonderful books like When Sally Gets Mad - Really, Really Mad and keep using just words naturally. We actually do that more with our daughters than we do with our toddler sons. We know that by the time our kids get to be age five, our girls are already ahead in the emotional literacy realm.

Then, you can just continue to talk feelings naturally. I know right now, a lot of our kids aren't seeing people a lot face-to-face, but you can prime it by, "Let's call grandma. When we FaceTime with grandma, FaceTime, don't just talk." You can prime your child by saying, "Listen to grandma's voice, and you'll know when she's too tired and you want to hang up," or, "Watch her face, and you'll know when she's happy or sad."

We just need to prime our children a little more, talk feelings a lot more naturally. As a result, you'll give your kids a huge advantage because they'll start to get the gateway to opening up the doors to being able to empathize with others.

Emily Paisner: As you mentioned, facial expressions are so important to understand people's feelings and have empathy towards whatever those feelings might be. Right now, everyone's wearing masks and you can't see someone's face, you can't see their facial expressions, and this can make it really hard for not only kids but all of us to pick up on these important cues. Do you think thinks that this is going to have a negative impact on kids' emotional development? If so, what do we do about it?

Dr. Michele Borba: I think we should be very concerned. First of all, we were dealing, prior to a pandemic, with the loneliest population on earth known to man when we looked at UCLA studies. Our children were coming in every year to UCLA, they're doing a tracking device, and discovered that last year's incoming college freshmen was the loneliest kids, they didn't have that social literacy and the emotional vocabulary. As a result, their depression and their stress was rising.

Now, we have masks and now we're doing all inboard social distancing, but there are some very simple solutions to it. First of all, when your kids are in your house, masks are off, so start talking just feelings far more naturally. You can start at age two with a fabulously wonderful tip, "Always look at the color of the talker's eyes."

Why? Because our kids, when they're older, they're more comfortable looking down, not up, they're more comfortable texting, not talking, but if you start with, "Always look at the color of the talker's eyes," actually they hold their head up and they start looking at your face. Later on, they're more likely to get the job because the first thing their employer's looking for is, "Can the kid walk in, sit down, look me square in the eye, and start a conversation?"

Second of all, make sure that our kids are having Zoom play dates. Some parents are setting up learning pods where once a week, the kids, not the parents, the kids are doing book club read-alouds or they're doing recess together and they're Zooming. They're still looking at each other, they're still talking and connecting, and many teachers are now--

Los Angeles Unified has now voted that the single first thing of every Zoom lesson, even before you start talking history, or geography, or math, is doing an emotional check-in, "Look at your friend. How is he doing? Look at his face. Does he look happy? Who looks sad? Who looks upset?" It's just simple little ways to weave it in, Emily. That's what we may not be doing nearly enough, but once we realize it matters, we'll find opportunities that are just day-to-day moments with our kids.

Emily Paisner: Stress and anxiety are just high for everyone. What can we do to help our kids handle some of these situations and help them learn to self-regulate? I know you've talked a little bit about some interesting strategies from the Navy SEALs that you've put into practice. It would be great for our listeners to hear that.

Dr. Michele Borba: I've worked all over the world, but by far working on army bases to train counselors was beyond belief in terms of interesting. It was the commanders who said, "You got to go talk to the Navy SEALs because we've revamped their strategies." Now, when I look at what they did, I'm going, "This is absolutely brilliant." Even the Navy SEALs would say, "Yes, it's not only helping us handle stress, but it's also something you can easily teach to kids."

Now, there's just a footnote. What does this have to do with empathy? As stress builds, our children and us adults dial our empathy levels down because you got to take care of yourself before you can reach out and feel for others. That's one reason we're also seeing empathy going down 40% in the last 30 years with our American kids, while narcissism is going up 58%.

Simple solution, number one, anytime you can, the first thing you do is before you even start talking about the Navy SEALs Approach, their first strategy is identify your stress signs. You can't apply any of these cool little coping strategies, unless when you're starting to get stressed. Maybe over the next week or two or three or however long it takes, just as a family, start helping each other recognize what are your signs that tell you you're starting to get a little irritable before you have that meltdown.

For some kids that maybe your heart starts to go a little fast. You can see some kids grind their teeth. They rock a little more. Every kid has their own unique signs. Ask a kid what yours are, and there'll so quickly say, "Mom, right before you get really upset, you always do that weird thing with your eyes." They know ours, but they don't know there's. The wonder is know your sign because stress builds quickly into anger. You can control it, says the Navy SEALs, if you do three simple things.

Number one, tell yourself, "I'm starting to get stressed." That means you're going to have to tune into your stress signs. Know what they are. The second thing they said is each one of them takes some kind of a moment to figure out a simple, positive affirmation. I look at him and they go, "I know that sounds touchy-feely, but it really works if the affirmation works for you." Like I got this, or I got to get through it or take a deep breath or relax. Not all of them, but just one of them. Maybe you can come up with a family mantra in your own home and you keep saying it until your voice becomes your child's voice.

Now, what do you do? Now, you've got to figure out how to cope with reducing that stress. Navy SEALs say the simplest way to do it is a slow, deep breath done the right way. Once you tell yourself, chill out, you take a breath from low in your tummy. You take it slow and deep up until it goes up to your head. Then you're really trying to relax. That's going to take a lot of practice and then you exhale, but your exhale is always twice as long as your inhale. It's kind of a one, two breath. Do it for several times of practice.

A couple of tips for your child, because a lot of kids I'm going to warn you when they try that they breathe too quickly and they don't get the relaxation process. For older kids, put a feather across a table and just say, see if you can breathe real slowly to get the feather to go across without bumping. Little kids, bubble blowers are fabulous. Blow your worry away. Blow way, way far away. Oh, don't pop it, but going way far, you have to blow slowly to get the breath.

What happens is when children keep practicing this over and over again, it kicks in. If you do it at home, it's a Godsend because now will happen is your child will be able to use it without you. It's why yoga is so hot right now because many kids have learned, "Hey, that's a way I can keep my stress at bay." You can also put an app on your phone, a yoga app, a mindful app, whatever it is, find a strategy.

In your own home, you can also make a calm down corner. Just a simple little place in your house. We're not talking pricey. We're just talking, loading it with a book or with a pillow or maybe those bubbles, or maybe the feather, a place where a child can go or you can go to just chill out, get yourself back together because your empathy levels will go up. You're going to relate better, and your mental health will be improved as well.

Emily Paisner: That's helpful, especially if we are all forced, hopefully not, but if we're all forced to be inside again. I think we've all spent a lot more time in our homes these past several months. Having a corner like that I know would be helpful in our home. What about as kids get older? We know that puberty's a tough time. Social interactions are hard. Social media adds a whole other element to it. How can we teach our kids kindness and empathy when there are all these external factors involved.

Dr. Michele Borba: First of all, when it comes to teens, great question, we got to let them lead us as opposed to we pull them. I have never seen so many brilliant ideas from teens across the United States during this pandemic. I've been interviewing them saying, "What are you doing?" Or "How's your friends getting through this?" They're worried like we are, but what they're doing is one of the best ways to keep their empathy up and their stress down. They're finding a way to contribute and help their friends.

Examples are tons. One girl said what she did is that she decided to ask her mom to go to the dollar store and buy just little lunch bags. I said, "What for?" She says, "I'm making quarantine bags. There are some of my friends I'm really worried about. What I'm doing is driveway drop-offs." Can you imagine? Every day she's taking one little bag, she's got a driver's license. She's social distancing. She's loading the bag up with simple little-- Maybe it's a candy or homemade cookie but a handwritten note for the friend.

Emily Paisner: I love that.

Dr. Michele Borba: Each day it's a different friend. She said, what's happening is amazing is that other kids are now doing the same thing because the kids are calling each other in crying jags because they didn't realize how much their friend meant to them, and how much they just appreciated the quarantine drop off bag. Another group of teens, these are teens, that they were worried about their siblings, their younger siblings. What they did is they borrowed their sidewalk chalk of their younger siblings.

They went out to the street because their other brothers and sisters from their friends were having problems as well. They made beautiful kindness drawings, but they also made inspirational quotes. This was the school in Chicago and pretty soon what happened the entire Chicago around that neighborhood was doing the same thing. The streets were loaded with inspirational quotes by teens.

One more story that I love. I think the other thing that's happening to our kids right now is that our empathy levels are going down and yours would too. If you saw a steady drumroll have a death count on TV every day, watch out because dismal news removes empathy and takes it down and it makes kids think the world is a mean scary place. One of the simplest things you can do as a parent is look for good news. It's on the back page of the newspaper. There's fabulous stories about kids who are doing extraordinary, altruistic, wonderful things, just at the drop of a hat.

Emily Paisner: You've shared some amazing advice with us today. If you could leave parents with one tip, something that they can start doing today to help reinforce and teach their kids kindness and caring and empathy what would it be?

Dr. Michele Borba: I think the first most important thing is don't start with a child start with yourself. We, as parents right now are all in compassion, fatigue. We're trying our best and we're looking for the silver lining. We're trying to make everything be so wonderful for our children. The key is we're going to get through this. Maybe the most important thing that kids say that they're looking for right now, is the calmness of us who keeps reminding our kids, "We got this. We got this."

Our children need a lot more we got this. Hope and optimism are a big part of empathy. Take care of yourself when you're under stress, reach out to another parent. I think one of the coolest things I'm seeing is learning pods that are setting up all over the country right now because we know we can't do this all ourselves. We're working and now we're probably a lot of us working at home trying to do our kid's education as well. You don't have to do it all.

What you can do instead is find another parent who can maybe do a book club once a week, another dad who's going to do maybe the recess once a week and zoom it in. Another father who maybe is great in math, or a mom who's fabulous in geography, take turns doing the lessons and zooming them. You'll be taking care of each other. You'll be building empathy, and you really will be emphasizing to your kids strong together, because that's what empathy is all about.

Emily Paisner: Michelle, I'm blown away by everything you shared. I was taking notes as we were talking, and I can't wait to talk to my kids about the signs that they're feeling when they feel like they're getting upset and I was writing down how parents can bond together to try and make this all a little bit easier for everyone. Thank you so much for joining us today. We really, really appreciate your insight.

Dr. Michele Borba: You're so welcome.

Outro: Thanks for listening to this episode of Equal Parts. See you next time.

Emily Paisner: Wait, before you go, I just want to tell you a little bit about Care@Work by Care.com. They work with some of the world's largest companies to offer family care benefits to their employees. If you're one of the lucky ones who already has care benefits at work, use them. If you don't ask for them. It's a real lifesaver. To learn more, visit care.com/careatwork. Again, that's care.com/careatwork.