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Want Your Kids to Care? Stop Stressing Them Out...


...And Let Them Play This Summer

Parenting expert Michele Borba says overscheduled, overwhelmed kids are missing out on the free play and downtime that develop their capacity to care about others. Here are 5 tips to help us stop stressing the empathy out of our kids this summer.

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 finish signing them up for three-days-a-week taekwondo, sleepaway chess camp, and a full slate of summer college courses.

"Too many parents are stressing the empathy right out of our kids," says Borba. "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."

Summer once revolved around free play: bikes, baseball, swimming, or just hanging out with friends. But for many reasons—parental emphasis on achievement, safety fears, the dependence on digital devices as entertainment—those carefree days are long gone. Like childhood itself, summer has become play-deprived and hypercompetitive.

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 5 suggestions from Borba:

1. Cut one activity to make room for play with friends. Eighty percent of kids say they wish they had more free time; 41 percent admit feeling stressed most of the time because they have too much to do. So sit down with your child and his calendar at the beginning of summer 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 pal, make it an "unplugged play date."

2. 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 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 force them to interact with other kids—and if some of those other kids represent other races, cultures, genders, and belief systems, so much the better.

3. 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 7 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 percent 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.

4. Steer them toward cooperative (not competitive) games. Collaborating is about working for the team or 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. Cooperative Games and Sports: Joyful Activities for Everyone, by Terry Orlick, or Everyone Wins! Cooperative Games and Activities, by Josette and Sambhava Luvmour, are two books you might want to read and share with friends and summer camp or youth group leaders.

5. 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 video games. And 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.

Michele Borba is the author of Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World




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