Do you ever get tired of parenting in our “selfie” culture? While many recent self-esteem movements have nurtured children’s healthy development, it seems other cultural trends have fostered their self-absorption. (We could begin with the coinage of the word “selfie” and its widespread practice on social media.)
So how can parents counteract our culture’s ongoing attack on empathy? There are many strategies, but two have been most powerful for our family:
- When the children are young, practice empathy in the home.
- As children age, find ways to practice empathy outside the home — e.g., through volunteer work.
Many experts agree that qualities like empathy, or “emotional literacy,” are learned gradually by young children via family life. Simple habits modeled by parents at home like communicating face-to-face (without technology), listening intently to each other’s needs, and caring for younger siblings or a pet lay the groundwork for children to develop empathy. Empathy can also be developed by reading literature or watching films together that explore unfamiliar perspectives.
When children reach elementary school age, having the whole family do volunteer work together can be an effective way to build empathy as well as strengthen family bonds. Finding volunteer opportunities can be challenging, but try asking fellow parents and researching local religious organizations, civic or government institutions, and places like soup kitchens. When our two daughters were that age, my wife and I discovered a family program at a local food bank that helped introduce them to the value of service work. It also began to open their eyes to the needs of less-fortunate people.
Ideally, by the time your children are teenagers, your family life will have immunized (or least partially protected) them against the onslaught of selfie culture that spews from cell phones and social media. But continue to help them find volunteer opportunities, especially ones they want to fulfill by themselves. Some high schools require a certain number of “service hours” to graduate, and that is a noble intention. But it risks making volunteer work a “have to” rather than a “want to.”
Youth Challenge impact on our daughters
Six years ago, our teen daughters were fortunate enough to find a local volunteering program called Youth Challenge. Youth Challenge pairs youth volunteers (starting at age 12) with physically disabled children to play adaptive sports together. Our daughters’ volunteering began as a service, but they soon gained much more.
At first, the Youth Challenge volunteers and participants are brought together by their differences. But gradually they realize they have much in common. They are all young people who enjoy getting to know each other, playing sports, exchanging high fives, laughing at jokes and just plain having fun. In the process, they even become friends, and the participants help the teen volunteers learn how to overcome adversity in their own lives.
Youth Challenge has even impacted the way my oldest daughter — who just started college — thinks about her future. She knows that whatever career path she pursues, a key priority will be helping people. She has a much better understanding of the value of nonprofit agencies that help fulfill the needs of community members. She has also developed a healthy awareness of her physical privilege, which has bolstered her sense of fairness and access.
Perhaps the most valuable — though invisible — benefit of a volunteering program like Youth Challenge is that it helps growing children crystallize their sense of self. They become more confident in what they stand for as individuals, and less fearful of people who seem different from them. They may still take plenty of fleeting teen selfies, but their actual self-image becomes more rooted through volunteering.