Helping Muscles

Tonight we’ll gather for our winter edition of the San Dieguito Book Club to talk about Michele Borba’s Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. It’s a book whose relevance feels more real every day and the ideas it presents strike me as a great starting point for meaningful conversation.

cover-unselfie-by-michele-borba-500x750Divided into three parts: Developing Empathy, Practicing Empathy, and Living Empathy, Unselfie provides parents, educators, and readers of any age and profession with real life examples, researched based opinions, and practical steps toward a kinder life.

Borba begins her third section of Unselfie with the compelling example of a Dateline episode that involved a “mini-bullying experiment.” Her description of a student with the “moral courage” to step in and stop an act of aggression illustrated clearly and well empathy in action.

It reminded me of a conversation I’d had with our basketball coach the week before, when he explained the sense of morals he tried to instill in his players. “It’s not ‘will you accept me’” he said, “for who I am, black, white, gay, straight, or whatever. It’s will you stand up for me when others don’t?” This is a man “living empathy” and making a difference in the lives of those around him.

Being “morally courageous” isn’t always easy, but Borba makes an argument that the benefits stretch beyond the person who is stood up for.

A bold child is more likely to withstand negative peer pressure, say no to temptations that counter your family’s values, and fight the good fight. But moral courage also plays a surprising role in predicting success and happiness and giving kids the Empathy Advantage. This essential habit boosts kids’ resilience, confidence, and willpower as well as their learning, performance, and school engagement.”

How then to help the students we work with (and parent) be bold in the face of adversity? Borba offers a series of suggestions from “set and example” to “offer heroes.” A more challenging suggestion for parents today comes in her call to “stop rescuing.” It’s a concept we talked a lot about at our last San Dieguito Book Club, with some wonderful conversations about the self-confidence that comes from figuring out the answers to challenges on our own.

Borba’s final chapter, Growing Changemakers and Altruistic Leaders, resonated particularly with me as a principal. I agree with Borba’s assertion that “our children are wired for goodness” and I believe that the opportunities and experiences we provide at school can make a difference with regard to their outlook on life and their place in society. I see in our complex role as educators a benefit of putting students in situations where they can succeed: academically, creatively, and empathetically.

img_0011The suggestions in Unselfie reinforce that belief and remind me how important it is to use the empathy we all have. As Borba writes: “Science shows that though our children have a Good Samaritan instinct, their helping muscles must be exercised continually or they’ll lose their power.”

I love the six steps that Unselfie provides to parents and educators to help students, including “find a cause that concerns your child,” “start locally,” and “keep going.” The list offers practical ideas that could be put into practice at home or at school and could make a difference both for individual students and the greater community.

I finished the book believing that I could make a difference, that I could contribute to a kinder world and a school community that valued, promoted, and celebrated empathy. It will be fun to hear what the others who read the book thought when we get together this evening in the library.

And for anyone who hasn’t quite finished the book, or who spotted this little post too late to start now, I’ll offer a briefer than brief summary of Borba’s epilogue as enough preparation to join us tonight.

In the final few pages, Unselfie suggests these seven ways to cultivate empathy.

Be friendly, it matters a lot and is a choice we can all make. Break down barriers; we are far more alike than we are different, not matter what some around us might suggest. Give kids a voice, whether at something like SDA’s student forum or around the dinner table. As a person who has spent his adult life working with teenagers, I can assure you that they have much of value to say.

Play chess and unplugged games. Create parent support networks. I hope our book club counts as that. Build caring relationships, with our students and each other. And Don’t give up on a child. We may be the helper that student needs, and I’ll suggest that they may hold the key to the kindness we need to show.

I hope for a good turnout for tonight’s book club, and even more I hope that the ideas suggested in Unselfie may help all of us at San Dieguito flex our helping muscles.


The San Dieguito Book Club meets on Monday, February 6, 2017 from 6:00-8:00 pm in our Media Center. Feel free to join us to talk about Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World.


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