The most important lesson you can teach your children.

According to child psychologist, Michele Borba, there is one critical life lesson that we must make sure to teach our children.

She argues that this particular skill doesn’t come with the child. It doesn’t develop naturally like walking or talking might.

The lesson? Empathy.

Defined simply as the “ability to understand and share the feeling of another,” empathy is a skill that child psychologists argue is severely lacking in the modern world.


Empathy is the "ability to understand and share the feeling of another." Image via iStock.

 Borba contends that empathy as a social skill has been significantly devalued in a culture that has become increasingly individualised. As a result, the practice of compassion, or attempting to understand one another, has "plummeted" in recent years. According to one study, the trait of narcissism has risen 58% over three generations. Borba explains that we have "undergone a seismic shift" and one of the contributing factors is undoubtedly technology.

She says “Self-promotion, personal branding, and self-interest at the exclusion of others’ feelings, needs, and permeating our culture and slowly eroding our children’s character." The likes of Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Snapchat and a host of others, all encourage a degree of narcissism unseen in previous generations. In Borba's words, we've replaced the 'we' with 'me'.

The dip in youth empathy is said to contribute to bullying, cheating, racism, peer cruelty, mental health issues, suicide rates and an inability to perform basic moral reasoning.


There has been a dip in youth empathy. Image via iStock.

In her aptly named book 'UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World', Borba passionately argues that kids who are taught how to empathise, are able to better understand others, collaborate more effectively, problem solve, and ultimately are more happy and successful. They are, in Borba's words, more able to "navigate the emotional minefields and ethical challenges."

Well, that is all very well and good. But how is empathy actually taught?

It is argued that basic habits should be formed in younger children. These include emotional literacy, which means understanding the feelings and needs of themselves and other people, moral identity, knowing the difference between right and wrong, and perspective. Skills like moral imagination can be fostered through reading books together and watching films. Parents are encouraged to talk to their kids about the characters' feelings. There's a great list of emotionally charged movies here.


Dr Borba specifically recommended the movie 'Inside Out' which explores the full spectrum of human emotions. Post continues below. 

Video by Universal Studios

As children grow up, Borba says we need to rethink success. We can often fall into the trap of praising kids for external achievements, like sporting or academic results. If we want to raise a generation of empathetic children, then we need switch our emphasis.

She advises that we instead focus on kids' moral accomplishments, which are much harder to quantify. Characteristics like generosity, thoughtfulness and compassion. Furthermore, it's critical to model kindness.

Of course, empathy is something that even we as adults can struggle with. By no means is it a skill we simply acquire and then forget about.

But by having clear morals and values, and focusing on the importance of being - more than anything - a good person, we can set an example for the next generation.

After all, nothing should make a parent prouder than having a kind kid.