Are We More Narcissistic? Why Teaching Kids Empathy Is Important Today

How parents can encourage empathy in a narcissistic world

Empathy for others is an important skill to nurture in kids. Getty Images/J.A. Bracchi

Are we increasingly seeing a decline in empathy in kids today? Have the conscious efforts parents have been making to ensure that kids have good self esteem perhaps somehow created generations of entitled, narcissistic kids? And how much of a role is social media playing on how focused kids today seem to be on themselves?

These are some of the questions I found myself asking as I read about recent social media posts that have made the news for their glaring lack of empathy.

These posts, put up in many cases by young adults and teens, are selfies in which the subjects are often smiling or posing in front of places where tragedies and human suffering have occurred, such as Auschwitz, The National September 11 Memorial & Museum, and more recently, the site in lower Manhattan where an explosion caused by a suspected gas leak destroyed several buildings, killing and wounding people and leaving more than a hundred people homeless. (In the case of the NYC blast, smiling selfies were taken mere hours after it happened, and the backlash was as swift as it was harsh.)

For some time now, trends like posting news about oneself on social media sites and taking selfies have been growing in popularity, fueled by the latest tech innovations like smartphones and social networking sites like Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, and more. And while simply sharing things about oneself with friends and family is certainly not narcissism, these activities do encourage people to focus on themselves.

It's hard to say what effect these self-focusing activities have had on young adults and kids today. People who are prone to narcissism might always have gone that way, even if social media had never been invented. And it's likely that the people who took these criticized photos were being thoughtless rather than malicious (and what young person hasn't had a moment--or several--when they did something thoughtless and foolish?).

 But that's the point--as we increasingly live in an ever-faster world of selfies and poses in front of historical or newsworthy places, we seem to be moving away from stopping to think about other people's feelings. As parents, we should stop and take stock of what this means, and talk to kids about why NOT stopping to think about others is not good for society.

How to Encourage Empathy in Today's Selfie World

Empathy, which is essentially the ability to understand someone else's thoughts and feelings, is an essential life skill that is thought to be in some ways more important than intelligence. Kids who lack empathy may have trouble making friends and understanding or controlling their own feelings. They may be more likely to be narcissistic, and put their needs above those of others.

One of the most important things parents today can do to encourage more empathy in kids is to get them into the habit of stopping to think before they speak or act. Young children are naturally self-centered, but they're also wired for empathy.

Stoke those natural instincts by having regular talks with your kids about how we can all be more caring to one another and why that's important.

For example, over dinner or during another quiet time, you can talk about news stories like the selfies at tragic places trend with older grade-schoolers. Ask them to think about why it may be upsetting to people. How would they feel if, say, their house was on fire and someone stopped to take a smiling selfie in front of it? Would they feel angry? Horrified? Upset? Have them think of a time when they helped someone (a sibling, a friend) when they were hurt or upset, and how it made them feel, or how they felt when someone helped them when they were in need.

With younger grade-schoolers, you can use examples from kids' books or from your own lives to illustrate examples of empathy. Talk about characters and people you know, like teachers and firefighters and police officers, who dedicate their lives to helping others. Have them think about what it means to be selfish, and why helping others and sharing are so rewarding (and being greedy and getting too much can only lead to feelings of emptiness and unhappiness).

You can also encourage your child to be charitable and volunteer with your kids in your community to help those in need like hungry families or an elderly neighbor. Encouraging your child to exercise these charitable muscles will also foster a sense of gratitude as you talk about all the ways you are fortunate.

If every parent can make an effort to nurture empathy in kids, we will reverse the selfies/selfish trend and perhaps have future generations make it trendy to help others, be mindful and considerate, and give others thought and respect.

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