There’s a disturbing new study that says that college students today are significantly less empathetic and far more narcissistic than they were 30 years ago. How do we fight this trend, for ourselves and our children?There are a lot of factors that could be at work, but certainly, social media and selfies aren’t helping. How can we focus on others when we’re so busy taking pictures of ourselves?
As the parent of a young child, I’m looking around with increasing worry. But worry isn’t going to change our culture, so we need to have tools.
1) Start by looking at yourself, and your own preoccupations.
Do they tend to be superficial–concerned with appearance or status–or are we looking toward something deeper and more substantive? Are we judgmental of others or do we put ourselves in their shoes?
By considering our own thoughts first, we’re better able to model for our children the world that we want them to inhabit. For example, if you’re driving and you tend to complain about others, try instead to say that you’re frustrated that you’re in a hurry. Recognize that you don’t know other people’s circumstances. Taking a not-knowing instead of a judgmental stance is a big part of empathy.
2) Get your children to take the perspective of others from an early age.
You can do this during a typical conversation. When they’re complaining about someone, ask what else might be happening for that other people and how your child might feel in that other child’s position. Considering alternative possibilities rather than going with our first instincts and judgments is crucial.
Empathy is about taking an imaginative leap, and children are all about imagination. Channel that.
3) Broaden your horizons, and those of your children.
Volunteer with your children (again, from a young age.) Help your children to recognize their good fortune, and to see that other people’s circumstances might be more problematic. Teaching children that pain can distort behavior is useful. Then they see other people through a more compassionate lens.
When you read with your children, highlight issues that are going on in the world. Engage them in conversation about those issues. Encouraging deeper reflection about the world and their place in it is a great empathy-builder, and an antidote and prophylactic to myopia and narcissism.
We’re all citizens of the world, and we can (and should) make position contributions. Model that, and help your children feel the resulting pride.
College kids photo available from Shutterstock