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When Should I Get My Child a Dog…and What Should We Get?

Last updated on November 2nd, 2018 at 11:11 pm

A few years back I wrote an article about what was the best age to get your child s dog and what breed you should get. Apparently over the last few years, this article has been viewed numerous times, so our editor asked me to go over it, update it a bit and maybe add a few more ideas along the way. For those of you who read the original article, I hope you find the add-ons helpful; for those of you reading it for the first time, I hope you also find it helpful and informative.

sad puppies shelterOver the many years I have been working with dogs and their people, I have heard so many different responses to this same question: “I promised my son a dog when he was old enough to take care of it” and “I told my daughter if she does well on her report card, we would get her a dog” and I have also seen the after-effects of this; the child reached the age the parent thought was necessary for them to get the dog, now the dog is used as a threat… “It’s your dog…. You wanted him and promised to take care of him. If you don’t clean up after him, we’re getting rid of him.” I have even had multiple customers call, asking me to take the dog to my house as a way to ‘show the child we mean business.”

So, let me explain a few things to help you make an informed decision on when it is right for your family to have a dog, and what dog might best suit your family. First, notice I said ‘for your family to have a dog.’ It is not realistic to think any child can be completely responsible for the care and well-being of a dog. While a child can help with many responsibilities, always remember… you will be the primary care taker. Ultimately, the right age for your family to get a dog is when it is something you want and you are ready for the commitment.

Similarly, I have also been asked many times over the years about getting a second dog… usually the typical time I am asked about this is when the kids are old enough to go to school full time and the stay-at-home parent is going back to work, and they think Fido needs a companion. We dog trainers have a saying about this, “Never get your dog a dog.” If you want a second dog and are ready for the commitment of a second dog, that is fine. But there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • There is no guarantee that your current dog will be as excited about another dog living in their home as you expected him to be.
  • If you think Fido is going to train the second dog, you are going to be very disappointed. If they do get along, and all is fine, while there are certain things the new dog will learn from Fido, they still need to be taught by you how to behave and follow commands.
  • Seriously reflect on the training you did with your first dog… If your reason for getting another dog is because you do not have as much time for the first dog as you would like, and therefore think they may be lonely, ask yourself realistically if you are going to have the time to do the necessary training for dog number two!

If you have made the decision that you want (and are ready for) a dog (or a second dog), the next step is research. Learn what you can about the different dog breeds. It is not enough to Google something like “Best Dogs For Kids.” It is not a bad place to start… and may list some breeds that are generally not good with kids, like a Chow Chow or a Lhasa Apso, but it is way too general. Just like every child is different, so is every dog. You want to do this prior to walking into a shelter or finding a breeder because these places have a way of tugging at your heart-strings, and the majority of the time, you will end up getting a dog on impulse. Whether it is because you couldn’t bear to leave the dog there, or because it is just so adorable… Remember, all puppies are adorable, but just like your kids, they grow up. So having a basic knowledge of dog breeds will help in your decision. Also, you don’t want to choose one for an individual family member (yourself included) but decide on what is going to be best for the entire family.

I had a friend that had decided to get a puppy, only she insisted it had to be very tiny… what they call a ‘teacup’ Yorkshire Terrier. She had a two year old and a four year old. I told her I did not think this was a great breed for her specific family. When she insisted she had always wanted one, I told her, “If you had always wanted a two seat convertible, and you were pregnant, would this be an ideal car for you?” Sometimes you can get away with saying things to a friend to get your point across that you just couldn’t say to a customer!

So how do you choose?

I have compiled a list of some important questions that may aid you in your decision making process.

  • What are your children’s ages? This is an important question because if you have a small or young child, a tiny dog might not be the best choice for you, as it wasn’t for my friend. Why not? Because little kids’ hands are often unsteady, or move very quickly… two things that can frighten a small dog, or make them feel like their safety is threatened. This is when they tend to go into the ‘fight or flight’ mode we talked about in other articles. And a very large breed dog can easily knock over a toddler or young child. So for these reasons, a medium sized dog might be your best option. One that is big enough to feel secure with small hands, but small enough to not topple over a little child.
  • Are there any allergies? For those of you that do not know what it is that makes people allergic to dogs, there are three things that most commonly make people react: The fur, the dander, and the saliva. Many people mistakenly think that a dog with a short coat will shed less than a dog with a long coat, but it is actually the opposite. Dogs with a short coat usually have fur, while most dogs with long coats have hair. Dog hair, just like our hair, grows, which is why they need to be groomed every 4 – 6 weeks (depending on how short you like to keep the coat.)
  • Are you a cleaning fanatic? Dogs with short coats, especially ones that may have feathering by the ears, paws, and tail need to be brushed so they do not become matted and tangled. The shedding is worse in the summer and the spring (what people call the shedding season). Dogs with long coats need to be brushed daily and be groomed to keep the hair short. And find out which dogs are droolers! If you are a neat-freak, a mastiff is not for you!
  • What are the finances like? Another important question. Big dogs come with higher expenses…. vaccinations and medicines, they eat more, have much bigger poops, etc.  Also, some boarding facilities charge more for larger dogs, so if your family vacations a lot, you might want to consider this a factor as well. And if you prefer to vacation with your dog, many hotels (even pet friendly ones) have weight restrictions on dogs you can have. As for grooming needs, a non-shedding dog needs to be groomed regularly. (Some people buy the clippers and learn to do it themselves to save money.) You also want to consider the genetic dispositions of a breed if finances are tight. i.e. many people get bulldog pups because they are cute, fat and wrinkled… but most do not know that in general, it is a very unhealthy breed that requires quite a bit of money to properly take care of. They suffer from hip, skin, breathing and eye problems, have allergies, and have a short life-span.
  • Is your family a very active one or more sedate? Again, an important thing to consider. Many places are pet friendly nowadays, and allow you to take the dog with you. If you all enjoy camping, hiking and swimming, a dog like a bulldog who has difficulty breathing and a very low stamina is not the ideal pet for you. A Retriever or a Beagle might be a better choice. Same holds true in the opposite end of the spectrum. If you are a laid back family that prefers reading or TV, then a dog like a Weimeraner, who is in constant motion, will be more of a source of frustration for you than an enjoyable pet, and a dog like a Border Collie will not be content just lying around all day doing nothing… they are happiest with a job or task to focus on and their boredom can lead to serious destruction of your precious things!
  • Dog Taking Happy Handsome Black Boy Child for WalkAre your kids outgoing or shy? A shy quiet child may not do well with a bossy herding dog, like the Australian Shepherd or a dog that needs a firm upper hand such as a German Shepherd or a terrier. Or even a Golden Retriever puppy that calms down quite a bit when they are older, but are definitely a handful and a ball of energy when they are babies! They may do better with something like a Havanese, who is content to hang out with humans of any age and rarely challenges authority. But the flip side of that is that if you have a very loud and boisterous family, that may frighten or intimidate a small dog like the Havanese. You might be better off going with a dog more secure with itself, like a West Highland White Terrier (Westie) or a Bearded Collie.
  • How helpful, in general, are the kids when it comes to chores? If every chore your child is asked to do turns into an argument, do not think the dog is going to be any different. They will enjoy all of the fun things with the dog, but it will become a battle when it is time to do the ‘not-so-fun’ boring everyday things, like feeding, brushing, walking and cleaning up after him. It is this reason I stress please do not use getting a dog as a reward for good behavior.  I have heard all of the promises kids make beforehand to get a dog, but rarely are they followed through with, especially when they have something else much more interesting on their minds than letting the dog out and waiting until he is done to let him back in.
  • How obedient do you want your dog to be, and what steps are you willing to take to ensure this happens? Remember, just like kids, dogs are not born with good or bad manners, they must learn them. But unlike children, what is instinctual and acceptable in a dog’s world is very different from what is acceptable in ours. Another potential issue is, if you decide on getting a rescue dog that is a little older, it has been raised in another person’s house… and what was acceptable to his original owner may be very different in your house. For example, getting up on the furniture may have been perfectly OK where he came from, but not in your house. So you have to remember that some training will be necessary. And although the kids can help with many of the dog’s needs, like feeding him, remember, it is very important that you always supervise their interactions.
    • You can’t just tell a child to ‘feed the dog’ without first teaching the dog to sit and stay and wait until their food is placed on the floor. An over-excited dog or pup is likely to jump up on the child, and may accidently hurt them.
    • Do not allow your small child to walk the dog on the leash outside until you have taught the dog not to pull. Otherwise, a nervous or excited dog can run into the street, pulling your child with them.
    • Finally, a small child will not know how to be very careful with a wire dog brush around sensitive areas like the eyes and ears, so they must be taught how to do it properly.

I will end this by giving you a link that may help you on your journey in finding the right dog for you and your family. It’s a questionnaire that you can fill out and it will give you several options of dogs that might be a good match for you and your family, and also recommend my favorite book Choosing a Dog For Dummies to help you chose the right breed for your family.  The reason I personally like this book is because when I want a quick synopsis on a breed, I do not want to have to search twenty pages to find the one thing I am looking for. In this book, each page focuses on the highlights of one breed: Temperament, size full grown, good with kids, protection level, grooming needs and genetic issues to look out for.

Still not sure…call a professional and ask their opinion – the IACP always has folks willing to help.

Happy dog hunting!

How to Raise Kids With Manners in An Uncivilized World

Last updated on October 24th, 2018 at 12:02 am

REALITY CHECK: A survey conducted by US News & World Report found nine out of ten Americans felt the breakdown of common courtesy has become a serious problem in this country. A huge seventy-eight percent of those polled said manners and good social graces have significantly eroded over the past ten years, and is a major contributor to the breakdown of our values in this country. What’s more, 93 percent of adults feel the major cause of rudeness is because parents are have failed to teach respect to their kids.

What a sad commentary!

Make no mistake: courtesy does enhance our kids’ chances of success! Using good manners will enhance your child’s reputation in all arenas—home, school, and the community. Scores of studies find that well-mannered children are more popular and do better in school. Notice how often they’re invited to others’ homes? Kids like to be around kids who are nice. Listen to teachers speak about them using such positive accolades. Courteous children also have an edge later in life: the business world clearly tells us their first interview choices are those applicants displaying good social graces. They also get more “second” job interviews, and usually even the job. You just can’t help but react positively to people who are polite and courteous. By prioritizing polite behaviors with our children, we can enhance their social competence and give them a big boost towards success.

Every child has an “off day” and forgets their manners, but here are signs from The Big Book of Parenting Solutions that indicate that your child may need a more serious “Manners Tune-up.”

Signs a Manners Tweak Is Needed

  • A typical response is an impolite tone (sarcastic or surly) delivered with disrespectful body language (rolling eyes, smirking, shrugging shoulders).
  • Impolite behaviors are now more frequent or becoming a habit.
  • Constant reminders are needed to reinforce manners that you thought you had  already taught
  • Discourtesy is causing friction in your everyday relationship and breaking down your family harmony.
  • Social experiences and peer interactions (birthday or slumber party invites, dinners, etc) are hindered because your child lacks certain social graces or doesn’t feel comfortable using them.
  • Discourtesy is ruining his reputation among friends, parents, teachers, relatives, and family.

Parenting Solutions to Enhance Social Graces

All three of my sons attended a wonderful cooperative nursery school led by an incredibly caring teacher, Jeanette Thompson. The very first impression I had of the school was how well-mannered the children were. And, through the years as I put in my “coop” hours, I understood why her students were so polite:  Mrs. Thompson never taught manners at a special time, instead she taught students manners all day long through her own example. Every sentence she ever uttered contained the word “please,” “thank you,” or “excuse me.” It was impossible for her students not to be polite. She used to always tell the moms, “Manners are caught, not taught.”

Was Mrs. Thompson ever right! I also learned an important secret from my children’s teacher: The first step to teaching kids good manners is to make sure you model them yourself. Amen!

Disrespect, poor character, and diminishing moral intelligence are increasing. Here are a few solutions to enhance good social graces in your children and give them that edge for a better life based on Mrs. Thompson’s strategies of raising a well-mannered child.

1. Stress Courtesy

Good manners are among the simplest skills to teach children because they are expressed in just a few very specific behaviors. We can instantly point out good or poor manners to our kids: “Wow, nice manners! Did you notice the smile on Grandma’s face when you thanked her for dinner?” or “Eating before waiting for the others to sit down wasn’t polite,” We can modify our children’s manners: “Next time, remember to say ‘Excuse Me’ when you walk in front of someone.” And we can always tune them up: “Before you ask for the dish, say “Please.”

2. Point Out the Value of Manners

Discuss with your children the value of good manners. You might say, “Using good manners helps you gain the respect of others. It’s also a great way to meet new friends. Polite people just make the world a kinder place.” Once kids understand the impact good manners have on others, they’re more likely to incorporate courtesy in their own behavior.

3. Teach A Manner A Week

When my children were young I taught them a jingle, “Hearts, like doors, will open with ease, if you learn to use these keys.” We’d then print a manner a week on a large paper key and tape it on our kitchen door as a reminder. Every child in the neighborhood could recite not only our jingle, but name the manners that are the “keys to opening hearts.” It helped me recognize “catching new manners” doesn’t happen overnight: it takes consistent effort to enhance them in our kids.

How about teaching a “Manner a Week?” Write the manner on an index card, post it on your refrigerator, and then hold a contest to see how many times family members hear another member use the word.

Here are a few to get you started:

“Please., Thank you., May I?, Excuse me, I’m sorry., Pardon me., I’m glad to meet you,, You go first.,May I introduce….? Please pass…, ”

Just remember that the best way for kids to learn a new skill is through seeing the skill and then practicing it. So do the manner with your child — or as a family, and then provide fun ways to practice, practice, practice until the manner becomes a habit!

4. Correct Impoliteness Immediately

Use the 3 Bs of Discipline: When your child uses an impolite comment, immediately correct the behavior by using the three “Bs” of discipline: “Be Brief, Be Private so no one but you and your child is aware you’re correcting your child, and Be Specific.”

“Starting your dinner without waiting first for Grandma to sit down, was impolite. Being polite means always respecting older people.”

Waiting for the right time when only your child can hear your correction, preserves dignity but still lets a child know behavior is unacceptable.

5. Acknowledge Politeness ASAP

Please also remember to point out the moment your child uses those manners and let him know you appreciate his efforts. The quickest way to shape behavior is by pointing out the moment a child does the action the right way.

“Thank you for using your polite voice! Did you notice the big smile on Grandma’s face?”

“You waited for everyone to sit at the table before you started to eat. So polite! Thank you!”

6. Practice Manners

A friend of mine who really wanted to make sure her children “caught good manners” started a unique family tradition: Once a month, she asks her children to help her plan a party. The children plan the menu, set their table–with only their “company dishes”–arrange a centerpiece of hand-picked flowers, and then sit in their “Sunday best.”

The party is just for their family, and it’s the time my friend helps her children practice table manners such as “please pass,” “thank you,” “May I be excused?” (as well keeping your napkin on your lap, chewing with your mouth closed, waiting for others to speak, and learning which fork to use with each course).

Yes, it takes a lot of work, but she swears it’s worth it, especially when so many people comment on how well-behaved her children are.

7. Identify the Underlying Cause of Your Child’s Incivility

If your child has a more serious case of rudeness, then it’s time to dig deeper and discover the reason. Here are the most common reasons kids backslide in the manners department (and if you notice any of these issues in your home it’s time to roll up those sleeves and do some serious manner teaching) Manners not modeled or prioritized at home; Impolite peers or adults are being imitated; Music, movies, or TV that flaunt rudeness are having a bad influence; You’re allowing her to get away with it; Fatigue, stress or illness;Testing the limits; Never taught particular etiquette skills. What’s your best guess? Fix it!

Good manners do not develop naturally but instead are the result of considerable effort, patience, and diligent training. There’s no way around it. So keep encouraging your child’s efforts and teaching new manner skills until you get the results you hope for.

And don’t settle for less. Please! It’s our best hope for a civilized, well-mannered world!


Dr Borba’s new book The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries, is one of the most comprehensive parenting book for kids 3 to 13. This down-to-earth guide offers advice for dealing with children’s difficult behavior and hot button issues including biting, tantrums, cheating, bad friends, inappropriate clothing, sex, drugs, peer pressure and much more. Each of the 101 challenging parenting issues includes specific step-by-step solutions and practical advice that is age appropriate based on the latest research. The Big Book of Parenting Solutions is available at

How To Teach Kids Storytelling To Improve Their Friendships

Last updated on September 27th, 2018 at 02:09 pm

Thinking, speaking or acting impulsively without planning or thinking things out poses social challenges for children. We can help children better manage their impulsive thoughts, words, and actions by using a storytelling activity we call The Thought Bubble Technique. In this visual conversation activity, we help children think, write, draw, and talk about what characters in a story might be thinking, feeling, saying or doing. The Thought Bubble Technique encourages children to use their imaginations while building their thinking skills.

Here is how you do it…

Open a book with vivid imagery such as a Dr. Seuss book. Let your child or student turn the pages until he discovers a page he finds interesting. Tell your child, “We’re going to use our imaginations. We’re going to imagine a thought bubble is over the head of each of the characters on the page. Then we’re going to imagine what they might be thinking.”

By looking at the images on the page ask your child to make up a story about what’s happening on the page. What are the characters thinking? What are the characters saying? What are the characters doing? How are the characters feeling?

Help the child “THINK OUT” how is the thought, feeling or action helpful or not helpful? How might the other characters respond? How can the characters shift their thoughts, words, feeling or actions so that each story has a happier ending?

The key is to use the creative exploration of images to help the child thoughtfully reflect on how words, thoughts, feelings, and actions are prosocial, facilitating relationships or challenging causing others to feel uncomfortable, unhappy or withdrawn. Use your own creative license, adapt the “Cognitive Conversation” with the child to help him or her see things in a new way. Thoughtful exploration leads to the mindful development of new thinking skills.


70-play-hi-res-150x197Written for teachers, educators, and clinicians whose work involves playing, talking or teaching children who would benefit from better executive function and social-emotional learning skills, 70 Play Activities incorporates over 100 research studies into printable worksheets, handouts, and guided scripts with step-by-step directions, to empower children to learn and behave better. “With 70 Play Activities we aim to improve the trajectory of children’s learning by integrating the newest neuroscience with activities children love!” With over 70 activities designed to improve thinking, self-regulation, learning and behavior, your tool-kit will be full and your creative brain will be inspired to craft your own meaningful exercises. 70 Play Activities is available at

8 Ways to Boost Our Kids’ Social-Emotional Skills

Last updated on July 30th, 2018 at 02:26 pm

Teaching children social-emotional skills is one of the greatest gifts you can give them. After all, few skills increase their confidence, social competence, empathy, resilience, and self-esteem more because kids need them in every area of their lives. So what’s the problem? It’s this: today’s teens would rather text than talk. Girls spend (on average) more time on social networking than boys and send more texts – about 100 a day.

Common Sense Media surveys also show that the average eight-to 17 year old is plugged into some kind of digital device at least 7 and a half hours a day. And you don’t learn social-emotional skills by facing screens.

The single predictor of healthy emotional interactions is lots of face to face communication. [Clifford Nass] Kids who spend more time interacting via a screen than in person do not get sufficient practice in observing and experiencing true emotions and developing crucial offline skills of social and emotional intelligence. What’s more, face to face communication is the best way to help our children develop empathy. Without those skills our kids are less equipped to successfully navigate their social world. Do make sure you are striking the balance of unplugged vs. plugged in times in your home. Ensure that you have sacred, unplugged family times so you can all enjoy one another in REAL time!

We also know that many kids have difficulty reading emotions. Duke and UCLA are just two of the many universities researching ways to help children diagnosed with communication handicaps.

The good news is that you can improve your child’s communication skills and boost his or her emotional intelligence. Here are eight simple ways to tune up our kids’ social emotional intelligence so they learn to communicate face to face and reap the joy of real (not virtual) relationships.

1. Listen more attentively

Attentive listening keeps the lines of communication open so that your children always feel comfortable sharing their thoughts, feelings and experiences with you. You discourage your kids from expressing themselves when you cut them off, deny their feelings, lecture, order them, roll your eyes, shrug your shoulders, raise your eyebrows, frown, turn away, or shake your head. (Woah, eh? Not to send you a guilt trip but… do tune into your communication skills a bit closer, and beware of how influential you are).

2. Help your children send and receive nonverbal messages

Sending and receiving nonverbal messages through body language enhances your child’s social and emotional competence. Often kids don’t listen to your words as much as they watch your posture, gestures, and facial expression, and hear the tone of your voice. Help children understand that their body posture, facial expression, and voice tone send messages and that if they don’t interpret or send nonverbal messages correctly, serious misunderstandings occur.

3. Teach two critical skills-eyes contact and smiling

Using the skills of eye contact and smiling increases children’s social success. As you talk with your child, use eye contact. Whenever your child displays a great smile, point it out! By reinforcing these skills and modeling them regularly, your child will soon be smiling more and using eye contact.

Hint: Eye contact (or looking at the person) and smiles are the two skills that are also the most commonly used traits of well-liked kids. They are also easy to teach and reinforce. Point them out in others!

4. Make an emotion scrapbook

Collect pictures of facial expression in a scrapbook. Include the six basic emotions: happy, sad, angry, surprised, afraid, and disgusted. Now make a game of naming the emotions by asking, “How is this person feeling?” Help your child predict the body language and voice tone that would accompany each expression.

5. Guess people’s emotions

With your child, watch other people’s faces and body language at the playgound, park, or shopping mall. Try together to guess their emotional states.

The best way to teach social skills is by SHOWING a child what each skill looks like in real context. So SHOW the skill, don’t just TELL your child about it. Do also help your child understand the value or benefit of learning the skill. (“It will help you get a job.” “It helps you make more friends.” “Teachers like it when you look at them as you talk.” “People like to be around others who make them feel valued.”)

6. Watch silent movies

Turn off the sound on your TV and watch a show together. Guess how the actors feel based on what you see. Don’t assume that your child is picking up the subtle clues of body language. Point them out. Role play them together.

Tension behaviors to watch for include blinking eyes rapidly, biting nails, twirling hair, clenching jaws, and grinding teeth. Withdrawal behavior include folded arms, crossed legs, rolling eyes, and not facing the speaker. Expressions of interest include nodding, smiling, leaning into the speaker and standing or sitting close to the person.

7. Play emotion charades

A fun game is to have family members play charades using only their face and body. Try to guess the person’s emotion.

8. Observe good listening behaviors

Be on the alert for people demonstrating good listening habits; point them out to your child. The better your child understands what good nonverbal listening behaviors look like, the greater the chance he will use them on his own.

Learning these skills takes practice. At home, provide opportunities for your child to practice a wide range of communication skills, enabling her to get her point across more confidently in the real world. Just remember: it’s never too early–or too late–to enhance communication skills nor social-emotional competencies. The key is make sure face-to-face interactions become part of our daily lives.




UnSelfie 140x210Teens today are 40 percent less empathetic than they were thirty years ago. Why is a lack of empathy—along with the self-absorption epidemic Dr. Michele Borba calls the Selfie Syndrome—so dangerous? First, it hurts kids’ academic performance and leads to bullying behaviors. Also, it correlates with more cheating and less resilience. And once children grow up, it hampers their ability to collaborate, innovate and problem-solve—all must-have skills for the global economy. The good news? Empathy is a trait that can be taught and nurtured.  UnSelfie is a blueprint for parents and educators who want activate our children’s hearts and shift their focus from I, me, and mine… to we, us, and ours.  It’s time to include “empathy” in our parenting and teaching!  UnSelfie is AVAILABLE NOW at

9 Ways to Help Your Children Cope with Painful Emotions

Last updated on June 22nd, 2018 at 01:48 am

The social-emotional development of our nation’s children is foremost in our minds. We have all hugged our children and expressed gratitude for their health and well-being. We pray for those families who now are hurting so deeply. Some of whom are very close to our own hearts.

When life is difficult or complicated and our children are in a stress-response, we need to co-regulate with them. Our words and actions can help the children “Find Calm”.  What we say, think and do in these intense or painful moment matters.

Co-regulating is about being present and ready to sit with the child in their fear, hurt or pain. Here are 9 ways you can say, “Your feelings matter”.  “Together, we will get through this.”  Feel free to grab these mantras if one rings true for you. Let us share some love and kindness when moments get tough.

  • “We can embrace your BIG feelings. Let’s breathe through them together”
  • “Let’s move through your BIG feelings together
  • “Your feelings truly matter to me”
  • Let’s choose how many minutes you will be in these BIG feelings.”
  • “You have the power to feel deeply and still be balanced and calm.”
  • “Help me better understand how you feel.”
  • “Let’s Be Calm Together.”
  • “I am right here with you.  We will work through this together.”
  • “We can work through these intense feelings together.”



bloom cover - 140x208Written for real parents with anxious, angry and over-the-top kids, Bloom is a brain-based approach to parenting all children. Taking its lead from neuroscience and best practices in early childhood mental health, it offers parents, teachers and care providers the words, thoughts and actions to raise calm, confident children, while reducing the need for consequences and punishment. The first book of its kind, it provides pages full of printable mantras you can carry with you, hang on your fridge or use in your classroom to raise emotionally competent kids. Stop second-guessing the way you handle misbehaviors, and learn why they occur in the first place. Bloom is available at



How to Teach Your Kids Empathy-Building Skills

Last updated on July 15th, 2018 at 11:53 am

Empathy is the critical ability that puts us in other people’s shoes and helps us feel with them. Research finds that this immensely human trait can be cultivated. That means we can teach empathy to kids just like reading, math, and writing because it is made up of social-emotional skills that can be developed.

But in today’s test-driven, digital-driven, competitive culture, cultivating kids’ empathy is low on our priority lists. It’s a big reason American’s teens empathy dipped 40 percent in just 30 years! In fact, almost 75 percent of today’s students rate themselves as less empathetic than their average counterpart three decades ago.

It’s time we recognize that empathy is anything but soft and fluffy, but  crucial for our children’s success, happiness, and character, as well as key to helping them become contributing members of a global world.

So how do we weave in empathy-building into our packed days? That’s what I spent ten years researching as I wrote UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. In the process I found dozens of simple cost-effective strategies like the one that follows. I also recognized that our best hope for children to develop habits of empathy is for educators and parents to work together in their empathy-building efforts. What follows is one of the effective ways I’ve observed. Not only does it match the research but also is most likely to help kids actually develop the skill so they can use it without us!


Shipley is a private school with a stellar academic reputation, but it also embraces social and emotional learning to prepare students for life. I observed Shipley’s monthly “Parent Drop-In Day,” where Lucy McDermott’s second graders schooled their moms and dads in a crucial empathy-builder called, “I Messages.” I realized that how her students were learning the core social-emotional skill is exactly how parents and educators should teach any empathy-builder to kids.

An “I Message” (or “I Statement”) is a sentence frame to assert the feelings, beliefs, values, or concerns of the person speaking. The message generally begins with the word, “I,” (contrasted with starting with “you,”) and can be a valuable interpersonal communication tool to help children share their concerns, views, or feelings to another in a respectful way.

The strategy also reduces conflicts and restores relationships so “I Messages” can be a technique to keep empathy open and reduce the notorious Empathy Gap. The sentence frame has been used for years, but too often students must be prompted by an adult to use it. Ms. McDermott was teaching the skill so her students were more likely to transfer and use it outside the classroom..

Empathy-building skills must be developed and practiced repeatedly before children can “live them.”

McDermott’s parent program began with eight-year old Sammy introducing the empathy skill to parents.

“We use ‘I Messages’ to help us share our feelings with words such as: angry, sad, hurt, uncomfortable and frustrated,” he explained.

Then Josh explained the benefits: “‘I Messages’ help us to solve disagreements and conflicts. They help us communicate, and allow us to really listen to each other.” And he held up a chart showing the formula:

“To give an ‘I Message’ start by saying: ‘I feel…when you…because… and I need you to…”

“To receive an ‘I Message’ respond by saying: ‘You feel…when I…because… I will…’”

Next, students showed parents how to use “I Messages” by role-playing different scenarios. This was the powerful piece. Research substantiates that children learn skills best by showing-not telling-them what it looks like. These students were showing the empathy skill to their parents. Brilliant!

Then came the grand finale: Moms and Dads practiced the skill in child-led “tutoring sessions.” And interactions were priceless. One was plain unforgettable:

“Dad, I’m frustrated when you use your cell when I’m talking, because I feel you care more about your phone than me,” one boy told his dad. “I want you to put your phone away when I talk to you, please.”

From the Dad’’s pained look you knew his son’s words hit home. And then it was the Dad’s turn to use the “I Message.”

“Josh, you’re frustrated because you think I care more about my phone when you talk to me,” he answered. “You want me to put my phone away when you talk.” And then added, “Thanks for telling me, I promise to work on that.” His son smiled broadly: Dad was really “getting it.”

Lucy McDermott was teaching her students empathy-building skills using four steps that are crucial to mastery.

  • First, students named and described the empathy-building skill.
  • Second, they explained the benefits: “’I Messages’ help us to solve disagreements and conflicts, communicate, and really listen to each other.”
  • Third, students demonstrated “I-Messages” through role-playing and practiced.
  • Fourth, students taught the skill to someone else (in this case, their parents).

Those four steps are also the optimum way to teach any new social-emotional skill or empathy-building habit to a child.

Tips to Engage Parents in Empathy Building

Lucy McDermott found an ingenious way to help her students teach their parents a critical empathy-building skill. But what about parents who weren’t at her event? And what other ways can educators help parents learn skills to expand their children’s empathy? Try these tips:

  1. Make a video of an event like McDermott’s and share it with parents at your back to school night, parent conference or to new students.
  2. Have students make a video showing how to use the skill and send it home for them to share with their family on flash-drives.
  3. Put your video on a television monitor and show it on a screen in your school hallway like a PSA announcement so everyone entering your building sees the skill.
  4. Create a worksheet or poster of the skill, and send it home as “homework.” Each child teaches the empathy-builder to their parents who sign a form substantiating the parent-child practice.
  5. Turn the worksheet of the empathy-skill into a small magnet for parents to put on their refrigerators as an ongoing reminder.

Finding simple ways to educate parents about social-emotional skills improves the likelihood that students will use them both inside and outside the classroom. You can use the four steps to teach your child any empathy building skill in UnSelfie (and there are dozens). Just choose one skill a month (or as long as it takes), and keep reviewing, modeling, reinforcing and practicing it until the child can use it alone. Transfer!

4 Steps To Learn An Empathy-Building Skill

Step 1: Explain

Tell the child why the empathy skill matters, and how it will boost success. “Mindful breathing helps you stay calm.”

Step 2: Show

Kids learn skills best by showing what they look like, not lecturing or telling them. (Can you imagine a football coach telling his quarterback, “Go throw the football.”? Of course not!  Effective coaches show how to throw the ball, and then correct players when wrong). Teach empathy skills like a coach.

Step 3: Practice

Learning a new skill usually takes around 21 days of repetition, so choose one new empathy skill each month and practice it together a few minutes a day. Mastering a skill takes lots of practice opportunities. You might role-play the skill together, practice with family members, have the child teach a younger sibling or show Grandma via Skype. Do acknowledge your child’s empathy-building efforts.

Step 4: Use 

Continue providing practice opportunities until the child can use the skill without reminders, reinforcement or coaxing. Even better, make empathy skill-building a family affair, and practice together until the skill becomes automatic and your child can use it alone.


UnSelfie 140x210Teens today are 40 percent less empathetic than they were thirty years ago. Why is a lack of empathy—along with the self-absorption epidemic Dr. Michele Borba calls the Selfie Syndrome—so dangerous? First, it hurts kids’ academic performance and leads to bullying behaviors. Also, it correlates with more cheating and less resilience. And once children grow up, it hampers their ability to collaborate, innovate and problem-solve—all must-have skills for the global economy. The good news? Empathy is a trait that can be taught and nurtured.  UnSelfie is a blueprint for parents and educators who want activate our children’s hearts and shift their focus from I, me, and mine… to we, us, and ours.  It’s time to include “empathy” in our parenting and teaching!  UnSelfie is AVAILABLE NOW at