By Michele Borba April 2020
Let Them Play!
America’s kids are more self-absorbed than ever. If their constant gaze into the selfie camera isn’t proof enough, plenty of statistics and news stories point to a fall in empathy, a rise in narcissism, and an epidemic of bullying and cruelty. If you’re a decent parent, of course you want your kids to stop with the “me, me, me” and start thinking “we”—and you’ll address it as soon as you get finished with this pesky COVID-19 quarantine, finish signing them up for three-days-a-week tennis, sleepaway science camp, and a full slate of summer college courses.
Hmmm . . . could there be a link between brutal schedules and brutal (well, at least self-centered) kids? Absolutely, says parenting expert Michele Borba.
“Too many parents are stressing the empathy right out of our kids,” says Borba, author of Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. “We do it from a place of good intentions—in a hypercompetitive world, we are desperate to give our kids an edge—but all the pressure and all the structured activities are causing more harm than we know.”
“In a global world, empathy, emotional intelligence, and relationship-skills are everything—they’re what allow employees to engage, communicate, collaborate, and connect with people from other cultures. Kids develop these skills, in part, through unstructured, unsupervised free play.” Once upon a time, summers revolved around free play: bikes, baseball, swimming, or just hanging out with friends. Due to a parental emphasis on achievement, safety fears, the dependence on digital devices as entertainment, and the like, those carefree days are mostly gone.
We can’t turn back the clock, but we can infuse more fun, free play, and empathy-building activities into our kids’ summer. Here are some suggestions:
Cut one activity to make room for play with friends. Eighty percent of kids say they wish they had more free time; 41% admit feeling stressed most of the time because they have too much to do. So sit down with your child and his calendar and ask: is there one extra activity that can be cut to free up time to connect with peers and practice social skills? Make sure “be with friends” is added to the agenda. And when your child is with a friend, make it an “unplugged play date.”
“Forty percent of American schools have either eliminated daily recess or cut it back to a miniscule portion of the child’s day. Kids enter summer break starved for play—so it’s crucial that during these few short months, we make up this deficit as much as possible.”
Choose a summer camp that emphasizes fun. Increasingly, parents view summer as a time to give kids an extra academic edge. That’s why so many opt to send kids to a serious math, science, or computer camp instead of the kind where you swim in lakes, weave lanyards, and sing around campfires. This is often a mistake, says Borba. Kids need time to relax and be in situations that enable social interaction with peers.
Force kids to “unplug” as much as possible. Did you know that the average eight- to eighteen-year-old is plugged in to a digital media device about seven hours and 38 minutes a day? And that doesn’t count time spent texting or talking on cell phones. Even preschoolers spend 4.6 hours per day using screen media, and almost 40% of two- to four-year-olds use a smartphone, MP3 player, or tablet. These numbers are shocking, and according to Borba, they’re a big part of the reason so many kids are lacking in empathy.
“Too much online communication means that our kids will be less equipped to develop skills to navigate their social world, learn emotional literacy, and practice empathizing,” she notes. “So set specific times to remain ‘unplugged—for example, meal times, family meetings, and outings that involve other family members.”
Steer them toward cooperative (not competitive) games. Collaborating is about working for the team, family, or group—and it means you can’t always be first, win, or have your way. This lesson is increasingly rare in a trophy-driven world that often pits one child against another.
“Don’t underestimate old-fashioned strategies like flip a coin; rock, paper, scissors; pick a number; draw straws; and eenie, meenie, miney, moe in helping kids collaborate,” says Borba. “They also help kids resolve questions like ‘Who goes first?,’ ‘Was the ball out of bounds?,’ ‘What should we play?,’ and other issues that can derail cooperation. Kids need skills to curb conflict and keep empathy open. Practice them together until your child can use them alone.”
Insist that kids read this summer. No matter how busy kids are playing, there will (and should) be some quiet time in the summer. Most parents would much rather their kids spend that time reading than playing with electronics. The great news is that not only does reading boost kids’ academic performance, it also boosts empathy. In fact, science finds that people who read fiction are more capable of understanding others, empathizing, and seeing another person’s point of view than those who read nonfiction.
Hold summer family movie nights. Films can be portals to help our children understand other worlds and other views, be more open to differences, and cultivate new perspectives. Why not initiate a regular family movie time? Just rent a stirring film—Charlotte’s Web, October Sky, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, or The Book Thief—pop the popcorn, and make memories while discussing compassionate characters.
Focus on face-to-face family interaction. Family meals and even carpools are great settings to let children routinely practice empathy builders like communicating, collaborating, and respecting each others’ views—especially when they don’t agree with them.
Topics are endless: Ask about conflicts at school. Clip interesting articles from the newspaper. Discuss the new movie reviews. Debate who is going to win that big game or the election (and who really should). Then have siblings briefly rephrase the other’s feelings: “So you feel . . . ” or “You think . . .”
Find a place for kids to decompress. Children need to learn to manage strong emotions and find a place to relax or decompress. Make sure it is a place where time outs or discipline is never given. It might have a beanbag or rocking chair, soft pillows, stuffed animals, or a CD player, says Borba.
Create a “serving others” challenge. Encourage your kids to find ways to help others this summer. You can do community service as a family. Work at a shelter. Deliver gently used possessions to charity. Pitch in together to help the elderly neighbor with her yard work. Don’t stop there: Urge them to make serving others a part of their normal, expected routine. The more they can make caring about others a part of their expected routine, the better.
Issue each child a summer chore list. One of the best ways to help kids develop an “unselfie” attitude is by assigning chores. After all, to really be a team player in any group—be it family, sports, scouting, church, club, play, or academic—you must set aside your individual concerns for the needs of the group, which are tough notions for kids who are too tightly wrapped up in themselves.
“It’s not unreasonable to ask them to tackle bigger chores that impact the whole family, like yard work, cleaning out the attic, basement, or garage, or decorating the family room.”
The best summers are those that allow plenty of time for play with a bit of old-fashioned work thrown in for good measure. “The idea is to help kids find a good balance of free play and hard work that benefits other people,” says Borba. Both build empathy. Both will make for a summer that’s fun, meaningful, and rewarding on a whole different level. #