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.


Beautiful Compensations

This week, while I was preparing to jot out these thoughts on Michele Borba’s book Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, and particularly the second section “Practicing Empathy” that begins with the quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson:

It is one of the beautiful compensations of life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.”

I was surprised by a situation where my school asked another school if we could change the start time of one of our games to accommodate “Senior Night” and they said, unequivocally, “no.”

A week earlier we had been asked by the same school to roll back the start time of a game at their school and we’d agreed, so the refusal hit extra hard. I did my best to articulate our request, but the other school held to its decision, quoting CIF rules that showed they were legally in the right. It was a lesson for me in the importance of empathy.

photo 5At San Dieguito we pride ourselves on a campus community that puts a premium on seeing the world through the eyes of others. We recognize that we’re human and we make mistakes, but we strive to, as Borba suggests “move from ‘them’ to ‘us.’”

As a part of that journey, next week parents, students, teachers, and admin like me will meet to discuss Unselfie, and the importance of empathy at our San Dieguito Book Club. Our school community meets several times a year to talk about relevant books, and the opportunity for us to discuss the issues and challenges we face as we travel this path together make us stronger and more prepared to make a difference.

The first section of Unselfie discusses “Developing Empathy” and in the second section she writes about putting that empathy into practice. Much of Borba’s argument addresses parenting and the strategies parents can use to help their own kids practice empathy. She writes about kindness, explaining that:

Kindness is strengthened by seeing, hearing, and practicing kindness. … [and] kids must have ample opportunities and encouragement to practice kindness.”

Describing a school in Delaware that implemented a program to encourage this behavior, Borba explains that momentum “continued building throughout the year because the students continued doing simple, regular kind acts, and other kids saw or experienced them and wanted to do the same.”


At school we can do much to help support a commitment to empathy by putting students in positions where kindness is celebrated, encouraged, and where it can become a “simple, regular” part of the educational experience. This needn’t be didactic; it may be as easy as adults and students being more mindful about recognizing the kindness around them, and the school putting into place ongoing opportunities to recognize instances of empathy.

Here at San Dieguito I see examples of this in our ASB’s commitment to celebrating all students at assemblies, on our school’s Facebook page where students are recognized for being good to one another as well as for their accomplishments, and through programs like our Link Crew (where older students mentor and support younger ones), our PALs, and various clubs built around the ideas of being good people. I see it in the way our teachers treat our students, seeing them first as people and then as scholars. And I see it in the notes I get from kids, one this week so heartfelt it moved me almost to tears.

Borba spends some time talking about other advantages to practicing kindness, specifically citing scientific studies that suggest kindness leads to happier, less selfish, and more popular (as defined by having more friends, a slippery definition of popularity) kids.

In addition, she turns the discussion on adults, suggesting this scenario:

Pretend it’s twenty-five years from now and you’re at a family reunion eavesdropping on your now-grown kids discussing their childhoods. How are they describing your typical behavior? And what do they remember as “the most important messages” you told them as kids?”

Talk about giving adults pause.

The question, in a slightly altered form, is one great educators ask themselves often. Working with students as we do, it’s true that what we say is only a part of how we are perceived; what we do, how we carry ourselves, and the lessons we teach when we’re not purposefully teaching lessons does as much to define us in our students’ eyes.

As a dad (and as a principal) I read more closely as Borba described “how to cultivate kindness in children” including modeling kindness, expecting kindness in others, valuing kindness, reflecting on kindness, and explaining kindness. Her examples and suggestions have a real practicality that I look forward to discussing with the students, teachers, and parents who come to our book club next week. How might we incorporate a more thoughtful approach to encouraging empathy in our school? I believe our students know answers to that question that I would never think about.

cover-unselfie-by-michele-borba-500x750In the final chapter of this middle section of her book, Borba describes the vitally important shift from seeing “them” to seeing “us.” Describing a study by social psychologist Muzafer Sherif, she quotes the psychologist who explained “Hostility gives way when groups pull together to achieve overriding goals that are real and compelling to all concerned.” As she notes: “Raising kids in a competitive environment not only can increase animosity but also suppress generosity and prosocial behaviors.” How important then that we work together for the benefit of all.

Back to our Senior Night. After some additional conversations with the other school, where we talked about helping each other, supporting students, and the importance of looking out for sister schools, the angels of our better nature prevailed and the start time was rolled back an hour. It was a decision good for kids, and an experience good for all of us.

The results of students, and adults too, practicing empathy is more than just a kinder school. As we see the world through the eyes of others and slowing ourselves down to ensure that we allow for multiple points of view, we not only make our school community better, we also enjoy those “beautiful compensations” that Emerson writes about: lives richer because of the kindness we show to others.

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.

Unselfie with Friends

cover-unselfie-by-michele-borba-500x750It feels like a good time to think about empathy.

As an educator and a dad, I’ve found that the times I’m most impressed and inspired by kids is when I see in them kindness and caring and that quality that Shakespeare claimed was not strained, mercy.

With an eye toward encouraging our campus community to practice this kind of generosity of spirit and inspiring conversation about empathy amongst students, staff, and parents, our San Dieguito Book Club is scheduled to discuss Michele Borba’s book Unselfie on Monday, February 2, 2017.

In Unselfie Borba, an educational psychologist and prolific author, sets out to demonstrate that “empathy -rather than being a nice ‘add-on’ to our kids’ development- is in fact integral to their current and future success, happiness, and well-being.” To do so, she outlines nine “essential habits” that she suggests parents and educators can cultivate in their kids and in themselves.

As with all the books we’ve read in our book club, Unselfie is a great starting point for discussion. Do we need to agree with her blueprint for “cultivating” empathy? No, though much of what she writes resonates with me and compliments who we are at San Dieguito.

The strength of Unselfie is its clear argument for, and outline how, empathy matters, and how we might understand the difference it makes to be a part of an empathetic society.

I’ll put together another post soon with a few more tangible observations about Borba’s book, but with Winter Break upon us, a great time to find a chair, a cup of tea, and a book to read, I wanted to be sure that anyone in our Mustang family who enjoys good conversation has a chance to get started on what looks like it might be a great book to talk about.


The San Dieguito Book Club meets on Monday, February 2, 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.



ComplicatedWith our San Dieguito Book Club set for tonight, I’ve had a number of folks come to me with ideas and questions about the subject of our discussion, danah boyd’s book It’s Complicated.

My favorite comments have come from students, who have their own ideas about the issues raised in the book, and who shared their thoughts when I asked them some of the questions boyd uses to frame her argument about “the social lives of networked teens.”

With just hours to go, not everyone who has an opinion may have time to read the book, not even the free PDF of It’s Complicated, so I’ll use this post as a cram session of sorts, a shortcut to encourage folks to attend tonight, even if it’s just to listen.

Boyd uses these questions as the backbone of her book, building a chapter around each as she addresses the parents and educators who live and work with students.


  • Why do teens seem strange online?
  • Why do youth share so publicly?
  • What makes teens obsessed with social media?
  • Are sexual predators lurking everywhere?
  • Is social media amplifying meanness and cruelty?
  • Can social media resolve social divisions?
  • Are today’s youth digital natives?


One question that generated a great deal of conversation as I talked with students was the second, about sharing “so” publicly, and a couple of answers worth passing on came from thoughtful students who wrote:

I really think a lot of it has to do with social games, and comparing yourself to others. I am guilty of this too, which is why I limit my social media, hence not having an “instagram” or “facebook”, which to most of my friends is “absurd”. And even though many people might not have the intent to show off or be trying to impress or make others jealous, I think that’s a big subconscious reason. … Especially with teens, although I hesitate to admit it, we are all insecure, and in a way I think social media is a coping way for many teens and their insecurities. “I look good in this photo, so I’m going to post it”, the amount of times I have heard that exact line from friends, haha. It is really helping with their self confidence, yet like anything I also believe social media can have very negative impacts on confidence as well. That’s a whole different story though.”

This kind of thoughtful reflection is not the exception, but the rule with regard to the students I talked with. So too was a level of objectivity that might surprise someone who doesn’t work with students.

This question is unclear about what it means to share so publicly, but there are reasons why the younger generation shares so much of their lives to the world. The easiest, more generic answer would be, because they can. We are growing up in a world where we have, at our fingertips, a portal into the lives of billions of people online. And just like a kid who is newly born into the world, we are exploring the turf that we were born into to. In this case, we were born into a world that is connected by the internet. The reason teens share so much is because they can, without realizing that there may be consequences in response to the content that they are posting. But our youth is finally given a venue to express themselves, to share with the world what they have never been able to share so freely in the past, and that is, “look at what I can do,” “look at what I made,” “look what I’ve been, what I’m doing,” and the most importantly, “look at who I am.”

In addition to thoughts about the quantity of sharing, students were open to discuss the quality of what they shared. Some talked about the lack of importance of the information they put online, while others discussed context and the audience they believed would see what they posted as meaningful.

It’s Complicated author danah boyd has talked about some of these same ideas in interviews she gave when the book first was published. Three worth a look are:

So what will tonight’s discussion look like? I hope the students, parents, and educators who come will bring with them open minds and personal stories. I hope to put a San Dieguito face on boyd’s ideas, seeing how her more general observations from across the country jibe, or don’t, with what our students experience in this Mustang blue corner of the world.

If you’ve read the book, or even if you haven’t, I hope you might join us for conversation tonight, October 16, 2016 from 6:00-8:00 pm in our Media Center.

“Have a go…”

ComplicatedPart of a healthy school community is the ability (and opportunity) for parents, students, and educators to talk together about the big issues, ideas, challenges, and opportunities that swirl around our shared experience. Whether we’re moms and dads trying to help our kids navigate a world so different from our own growing up, students faced with a thousand choices every day, or teachers, counselors, and administrators dedicated to helping kids learn, we all benefit from time to connect with each other not in reactionary ways, but proactively identifying topics about which real conversation can yield positive results.

With this in mind, over the past two years I’ve had the pleasure of hosting book clubs at school that give all of us a chance to talk. Those opportunities for parents, teachers, and students have been informative, renewing, and fun. As this new school year begins I’m excited to announce that our first San Dieguito Book Club of 2016-2017 will be on October 18th at 6:00 pm when we’ll talk about It’s Complicated by danah boyd (the lowercase, ee cummingsesque choice of spelling her name is hers, and while the former English teacher in me cringes, I’ll honor it).

The risk of choosing to talk about a book, a real live book, about social media is that it will be outdated before it comes to print. It’s Complicated, however, smartly looks not at particular apps or social media platforms, and instead takes as its starting point the teens that use those apps and platforms. Writing with a great empathy and understanding of those adolescents, boyd presents and addresses typical presuppositions about “kids today” and does a nice job of speaking to issues of privacy, safety, and community.

It’s Complicated gives us much to talk about, but less to fear, and I’m looking forward to hearing what parents have to say about their own perceptions of their son’s and daughter’s online activity, what teachers notice about how social media and the rise of handheld technology has changed education, and what students believe about their own behavior online. These conversations are at the heart of our San Diegutio Book Club.

The New York Times book review captures the reason It’s Complicated is a solid choice for our first (of three) book clubs this year when it notices that “Boyd’s book helps us understand our new environment.” The interconnected online world is certainly different than what most of us parents and educators grew up with, and whether we agree with what boyd has to say a little, a lot, or not at all, It’s Complicated provides us with a great starting point for a discussion of the ubiquitous nature of social media in our teens, and our own, lives.

Last spring, when we ready Julie Lythcott-Haims’ How to Raise an Adult, discussion ranged from parsing direct quotations from the book to heartfelt anecdotes from parents, who realized just how much we really aren’t alone.

I knew just how much we parents were connected by shared experience when we got to the point in our discussion about “grabbing the glue gun” during our kids’ elementary school projects. As parents talked about the successes and missteps they’d experienced helping their students gain independence, lots and lots of heads nodded. We’d all come to the book club caring, curious, and a little nervous, and had all of a sudden found ourselves surrounded by kindred spirits.

As we talked about the challenges of parenting, one mom who’d moved to our town from Australia mentioned the trepidation she saw in her kids’ friends and contrasted that to the more bold Australian attitude that looks at uncertainty and thinks: “Let’s have a go!” We have a long way to go before that spirit of adventure is commonplace, but knowing that we are part of a caring community can help.

book clubIn addition to the parents, many teachers joined the discussion. To hear them talk about the importance of students finding their own voices, gaining confidence, and being willing to take risks inspired us all to think a little more about our role in helping kids become adults.

And those kids… some came to the book club as well. Our parent foundation purchased a few copies of the book for our school library and those copies were checked out on the first day. The students who lent their voices to the conversation brought a richness that those of us who have taught English know can be profound.

I’m optimistic that discussion on the issue of social media will be just as rich, and I look forward to hearing perspectives as varied and passionate as we heard last spring.

Over the next few weeks I’ll share some articles about the topic and excerpts from It’s Complicated, and do my best to encourage us all to learn together, talk with each other, and feel comfortable enough in our shared adventure to smile. We’re not alone and one of the best things we can do is take a deep breath, find our community, and have a go.

In Their Own Hands

51VffITheFL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_We’re about five weeks away from our first San Dieguito Book Club on April 25th. The book we’ll be talking about is How to Raise an Adult by Stanford Dean of Freshmen and Undergraduate Advising, Julie Lythcott-Haims. Based on the feedback I’ve gotten from folks who are reading it, I’m anticipating an evening of terrific conversation.

I’m hopeful we’ll have a good mix of parents, teachers, and students. All three perspectives contribute to the discussion, an important one as we all do our best to navigate the uncertain waters of contemporary adolescence.

Decades ago, a wise child, Anne Frank wrote:

Parents can only give good advice or put them on the right paths, but the final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.”

The gist of Lythcott-Haims insightful book is that as a society we’ve lost sight of this simple truth and that by our own choices we are interfering with the important experience of students shaping their lives with their own hands.

Part social commentary, part parenting book, How to Raise an Adult promises much to talk about when we meet. I know that I’m curious to see how people respond differently to passages like:

We treat our kids like rare and precious botanical specimens and provide a deliberate, measured amount of care and feeding while running interference on all that might toughen and weather them. But humans need some degree of weathering in order to survive the larger challenges life will throw our way. Without experiencing the rougher spots of life, our kids become exquisite, like orchids, yet are incapable, sometimes terribly incapable, of thriving in the real world on their own. Why did parenting change from preparing our kids for life to protecting them from life, which means they’re not prepared to live life on their own?”

I know my thoughts on this, both as a parent and as a principal, but what will other parents think? How about teachers? Students?

Prompted by smart and passionate writing, our discussion is an opportunity for us to see different points of view, and to understand the complex and sometimes confounding issues we live with every day.

For those who may not have the book, or quite enough time to read it through, I wanted to provide links to some places that could provide a bit of the flavor of How to Raise an Adult.

An interview with Julie Lythcott-Haims

An excerpt from How to Raise an Adult

A TED talk by Julie Lythcott-Haims
I encourage any member of our San Dieguito High School Academy community who is interested in a thoughtful discussion to join us on April 25th from 6:00-7:30 pm in our media center.

Little Scraps of Wisdom

I’m a dad, and I’m doing my best to figure things out. Knowing that I don’t know all the answers, or even all of the questions, motivates me to learn everything I can to support my kids. In the back of my mind I hear the line from one of my favorite authors, Umberto Eco, a grandfather himself:

I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren’t trying to teach us. We are formed by little scraps of wisdom.”

I’m conscious of my own shortcomings, and I’m always working to improve those “odd moments” I spend with my kids. I’m also trying to think about what they learn from me when I’m not teaching them, what they see when they see me interact with other adults, and what they hear when I speak to them, of them, or on their behalf.

Bookish myself, this leads me to read; an ever growing stack of books lives on my nightstand. As a high school principal, I know that the ideas I find in these volumes help me not only as a dad, but also in the work I do with students and families at my school.

I never presume that I know more than any other parent, nor that my opinions are the only right ones, though I do trust my experiences and what those experiences have taught me. I also trust in the value of honest conversations about parenthood and education. Knowing we aren’t alone as we help our students navigate this thing called life matters much. Adolescence can be a period of great pressure, both for kids and parents, and everything we can do to support each other really helps.

Along these lines, I saw some knowing nods when at a recent “Coffee with the Principal” our superintendent started talking about the importance of balance for our students today. After telling a funny and moving story about raising his own kids, he referenced some articles and books to a warm response from the parents. Drawing from an interview with Stanford University dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising Julie Lythcott-Haims and middle school teacher Jessica Lahey, he read:

[students become] anxious, depressed and risk averse because parents are focused on keeping kids safe, content and happy in the moment rather than parenting for competence.”

It got me thinking, and mulling it over during the Winter Break, it seemed to me that Lythcott-Haims’ book How to Raise an Adult, might make a great book club book.  This isn’t to say that everyone would agree with Lythcott-Haims, but so many would have opinions that discussion could be rich.

I read the book over the break, and came back even more convinced that this was the right choice to spark discussion amongst parents, teachers, and students too.

51VffITheFL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Lythcott-Haims divides her book into four sections, each relevant to the lives of the folks I hope will come to our book club. In the section “What We’re Doing Now,” she adeptly highlights issues front and center in the world of contemporary adolescence, including safety, opportunity, and that bugbear of balance that she calls the “College Admissions Arms Race.” In my time as an administrator, I’ve seen more than a few parents concerned about where their sons and daughters will go to college.

Perhaps the example that resonated most as I read How to Raise an Adult was from my time as a middle school principal and the hour long discussion I had with the parent of a sixth grader concerned about the implications of her daughter’s elementary school math placement. As she left I remember thinking: nobody’s future is determined by the math class they take when they’re eleven. Even as I thought it, I knew I hadn’t convinced the mom that it was true.

In her second section, Lythcott-Haims outlines her argument for “Why We Must Stop Overparenting.” I won’t catalogue her points here; I see this as much of the content of our book club discussion, but her specific reasoning provides examples as concrete as they are compelling. They’re examples I’ve thought about as I’ve sat in the stands at my kids’ softball games and when I’ve gone in to my own kids’ parent-teacher conferences.

As important to the book as what seems to be broken about our current system is what Lythcott-Haims calls “Another Way.” In this third section, she lays out a series of common sense ideas about how to support kids on their way to adulthood.

I’m particularly interested in what the students have to say when we discuss this particular section. I know that as educators we’ve put much effort into some of these suggestions (with more critical thinking and student centered learning a part of what we do). Will they see this? What will parents think?

How to Raise an Adult ends with two short chapters directed right at parents, and the line that still resonates with me is as direct as the rest of the book. “Your kid needs a human parent,” Lythcott-Haims writes, “not super mom or super dad.”

I’ll suggest that it will be both super and human to join the discussion of these big issues with members of our school family.

I don’t know if we’ll have a crowd or a handful of folks when we meet in our school library in a few weeks, but great conversation isn’t dependent on numbers, and I anticipate a rich discussion between fellow adventurers. I’m looking forward to a night of opinions, stories, and the little scraps of wisdom we can share with each other.


The San Dieguito Book Club will meet on April 25, 2016 at 6:00 PM in the San Dieguito HS Academy Media Center. We’ll discuss How To Raise An Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims.