Recently, when I picked up my 4-year-old daughter from preschool she announced that she wanted to get a new toy. I cringed, preparing for a battle.
Later, my son, a first-grader, whipped out my iPhone and pulled up the $50 pair of sneakers he’s obsessed with. “I need these,” he said.
The other night, they actually cried when my husband and I told them we were taking them out to dinner. They didn’t like the restaurant we chose: They wanted pizza.
My kids are loving and well-adjusted, but they have a center-of-the-world attitude with little concept of how lucky they are. Maybe you’ve noticed something similar in your own kids?
“We live in an extraordinarily child-centered age,” says Richard Weissbourd, a psychologist and senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “Parents organize themselves around their children’s every need. They have an allergy to kids experiencing adversity.”
As a result, kids develop self-absorption and entitlement, and they lose the ability to develop resilience and coping strategies, which, says Weissbourd, can cause them to feel as if the world revolves around them.
In recent decades, the cultural emphasis on material goods, consumption, appearance, and personal achievement has pushed traits like empathy, kindness, and generosity to a low-priority position, says Michele Borba, an educational psychologist and author of 2016’s “UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World” (Simon & Schuster).
“Compared to their peers of 30 years ago, today’s kids are 40 percent less empathetic,” says Borba, citing a 2010 study by researchers at the University of Michigan. She attributes a variety of possible reasons for the shift: from our plugged-in culture to our over-scheduled lives to the academic rat race.
“I feel like kids have trumped all in our culture and it’s a disservice to everyone,” says Bobbi Wegner, a clinical health psychologist who counsels parents in her Brookline practice. “Parents are overburdened, running from activity to activity, and they’re not parenting well.”
It’s crucial, says Wegner, that parents establish that they are making the decisions. “Although everyone’s feelings and thoughts are important, take an authoritative stance — the home shouldn’t be a democracy.”
Studies show that kids who understand others’ points of view are better adjusted, more popular, and even have healthier peer relationships. Parents want to raise kind, caring, considerate kids. Yet Weissbourd cites a Harvard study he conducted among 10,000 middle and high school kids where success was deemed more important than being a caring person.
“About 80 percent of them rank achievement as being more important than happiness, which won out over caring. When the kids were asked how they thought their parents would rank the qualities, they were most inclined to say their parents valued achievement over caring,” he says. “So there’s a [difference] between what parents spout and what they convey to their children.”
To that end, parents need to make teamwork and caring a priority — even if it elicits grumbles from the kids.
“Tell them they can’t quit the soccer team because it will let down their teammates,” Borba says. And instead of stressing that you want them to be happy, stress that you want your children to be kind.
“When you see a lack of caring or unkindness, don’t be afraid to lay down the law and say, ‘Not in this family,’ ” says Borba.
Weissbourd encourages parents to be less focused on how their kids are feeling moment to moment.
“Try to get them to focus on how other kids are feeling. There might be a kid who is ostracized on the playground — ask your child how he or she thinks that that person feels.”
As kids get older, it’s usual for them to have empathy for their family and close friends. But they must also learn to develop empathy for the people they encounter in their daily lives: a server at a restaurant, the bus driver, the school secretary.
“Keep widening their circle of concern the older they get,” says Weissbourd. “Middle school and high school kids should be able to grasp the severity of the situation with the refugees in Syria.”
Weary of fielding complaints over the type of pasta she served for dinner — one night, it was tri-color instead of spiral shaped! — and frustrated by her daughter saying life was unfair because she didn’t have the pillow she wanted, Colette Potts, a mother of three and family therapist with a master’s degree in education, made the decision not to “sugar coat” things for her kids anymore.
“I felt that they should understand that the world really isn’t fair for some people,” says Potts, who lives in Falmouth.
The family attended a vigil earlier this year for the victims of the Orlando nightclub shooting, and Potts and her husband explained to their 5- and 6-year-olds the reason they were there.
“The kids were surprisingly able to handle the information,” recalls Potts. “They asked why someone would shoot people and we explained that there wasn’t enough love, compassion, or empathy in the world.”
“Sheltering kids is such an American concept,” says Wegner. “Parents jump through hoops to not tell kids the family pet has died or a relative has passed away. But shielding kids from everything is a big mistake. They are just trying to understand what’s going on and us telling them the truth is how they learn.”
An emphasis on regular family togetherness, such as at mealtime, is a great way to foster empathy in children.
“Make sure at least half of your questions are about your child’s friends or about how your child treats others,” says Borba. “Not only are you modeling concern for others by asking these questions, but you’re teaching your child to think about the world in a different way — that it isn’t all about him or her.”
Talk to your kids about how they can be of service to those less fortunate.
“For younger kids, the more local, direct, and concrete the better,” says Wegner, who harvested zucchini from her garden with her kids, ages 3, 5, and 7. They made zucchini bread and held a bake sale in the yard, donating the proceeds to the Milton Food Pantry.
“It’s so important for them to realize that most people in the world have much less than we do,” says Wegner. “If you can instill a sense of gratitude and awareness in them at a young age, it’s so beneficial in the long run.”Jaci Conry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.