by Chase Scheinbaum

How to teach your son empathy

Youth culture, young people, group of male friends, multi-ethnic teens outdoor, teenagers together in park. Boys comforting sad friend, kids helping depressed boy. Adolescence bond, relationship

According to Dr Michele Borba, former teacher, educational psychologist, and author of UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, as a society, we’re failing to teach our kids how to be empathetic. Research shows that teens today are 40% less empathetic than they were 30 years ago.

Why is a lack of empathy so dangerous? According to Borba, it hurts kids’ academic performance, leads to bullying behaviours, and correlates with more cheating and less resilience. As adults, those who lack empathy are less able to collaborate, innovate and problem-solve than their empathetic counterparts.

But don’t despair – all is not lost. Borba believes that if parents start to encourage empathetic habits early, there’s still hope of our boys putting human kindness ahead of #kindness.

Here are 6 of Borba’s top tips to help teach your selfie-loving son some empathy: 

  1. Teach him to read emotions
    We understand how someone is feeling through facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. Whenever possible, point out the emotions behind the physicality. “Talk naturally about feelings more,” says Borba. “‘Oh, you look sad,’ or ‘Listen to Dad’s voice,’ or ‘Look at Mum’s posture, her shoulders are slumped over.’” Here are a few more tricks to help him read emotions:
  • Use Skype or Facetime when possible: it’s not as good as in-person, but it’s better than talking on the phone because faces and body language are part of the conversation. It also limits the amount of eye-rolling and obscene gestures your son can get away with.
  • Watch movies with the sound off. Put the TV on mute and quiz your son about emotions Nemo is feeling when he’s reunited with his dad. Or the old man fromUp is feeling when his wife dies. Then excuse yourself to sob uncontrollably in the bathroom. 
  1. Take a breath
    Reducing stress makes it easier to feel for others, and the easiest way to get everyone to calm down is to breath properly. Here’s a breathing exercise to teach a boy of any age:
  • Have him place a stuffed animal on his abdomen.
  • Tell him his breath is an escalator, and draw a long, slow deep breath from the bottom of lungs to the top.
  • Exhale for twice as long.
  • Listening to a relaxing, repetitive song also helps. Except for Wheels On The Bus. That has the opposite effect.
  1. Engage in semi-random acts of kindness
    Donating canned food once a year does not a habit make. The idea is to ingrain kindness as a habit, so there has to be an element of repetition – for instance:
  • The Bottomless Cardboard Box: Leave out a cardboard box for old clothes and toy donation. Rather than a once-a-year spring cleaning, that box will be a constant reminder that there are less fortunate kids than in the world (or even down the street).
  • 2 Per Day: Ask them to do 2 nice things every day. That’s the minimum — they can do a million if they feel up to it. And it should be small, manageable things, like making eye contact with someone and saying “Good morning”. 
  1. It’s not me, it’s we
    Your son will find it easier to empathise with those who share his gender, race or religion, and that’s OK. However, it’s important for him to realise that there are more socio-economically, racially, religiously, and sexually different people on the planet. Borba suggests travelling to developing countries as a quick way to illustrate this, but museums, libraries and the good old internet work well too.
  1. Show him what a real hero looks like
    There are plenty of real-life examples you can point out that will help your son feel like he can make a difference. Like the boy who started a ‘buddy bench’ for lonely classmates, or 2016 Young Australians of the Year Nic Marchesi and Lucas Patchett, who built a free mobile laundry in their old van to help the homeless. 
  1. Raise an upstanding – not bystanding – boy
    Teach him that if you see something, say something. If your son thinks someone is being treated cruelly or unfairly, let them know it takes courage to stick his neck out for someone else. Kids won’t always instinctively speak up for others, and you don’t want to speak for them. Encourage him to use his own words and, if those don’t work, let him know that he can always tell you, a teacher, or an older friend or a family member.

Brought to you by Brighton Grammar School

Chase Scheinbaum is an LA-based journalist and editor whose work has been featured in Businessweek, Village Voice, Men's Journal and on This article is about