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Apps of Kindness: Can Your Kids Download Their Way to a Better Character?

In a progressively less empathetic world, here's how you can use tech and IRL (in real life) play to foster empathy in your children

Published on: October 27, 2015

“When you feel so mad that you want to roar, take a deep breath and count to four.”

“When you feel sad, it can help to know that little by little, you’ll feel better.”

“When something seems bad, turn it around and find something good.”

I’m being schooled by a zoo animal — Daniel Tiger, to be exact, the adorable hoody-wearing star of PBS Kids’ animated TV show Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. Now fully housebroken, this kitty is going mobile, making the rounds on handheld screens via a family of downloadable applications for preschoolers. Daniel’s stated goal? To boost children’s social-emotional development, one feeling at a time.

Increasingly, lessons that used to be taught at story time with late-blooming lions and curious monkeys are being given via animated, portable and extraordinarily engaging games. A blossoming industry of kids’ apps that purport to boost character and skills such as empathy, tolerance, courage and responsibility is virtually bursting the app-store seams. The selection is vast and fascinating, with choices for kids of all ages (and even self-aware adults who want to live their best lives; we’re on it, Oprah). Just pay a few bucks, hit “download,” and in minutes, your child can be tapping and swiping his way to greater social-emotional competency. Parental participation is optional. 

In a way, this is nothing new. Parents have always sought a little back-getting on the character-training front, from the “village” of tattling neighbors of yore to the 1960s and the deeply lovely Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, to the 1970s, when we were Free to Be You and Me, to the new and readily available apps — many from well-respected entities such as PBS, Sesame Street Workshop and The Fred Rogers Center — that target what is widely perceived as an increasingly urgent societal need. Now we can automate character training, weaving it into our kids’ worlds so seamlessly that they don’t even know it’s there, like so much puréed cauliflower lurking in the mac and cheese.

It’s the kinder, gentler side of the always-on-devices lifestyle, brought to you by the letter A and some of the most revered powerhouses of child development, grounded in research and in bulletproof social-emotional curricula. So why not? Kids are always on devices, anyway, we reason — that ship has long since sailed — so why not break up the Candy Crushing with a little pro-social training?

That may not be the right question to ask, a bit like asking whether your child’s before-dinner PopTart should include real fruit flavoring. It’s healthier, sure, but what the heck are we doing? How has the new normal brought us to empathy training via tablet? Increasingly, child advocates say, we need a record-scratch reset on the whole thing.

Empathy entropy

One could argue that it’s easy to see how we got here, given the recent research. In the nine years since then Senator Barack Obama decried a national “empathy deficit,” evidence has been piling up that kids are less compassionate and caring these days, and more obsessed with success and material gain. “We live in a culture that discourages empathy,” Obama said in 2006, triggering an angst-charged wave that ripples to this day, “a culture that too often tells us our principal goal in life is to be rich, thin, young, famous, safe and entertained.”

It’s a painful irony of our culture that even as children are becoming more connected to others —constantly in touch with a widening circle of “friends” via social media — they seem to be caring less about others. A 2010 study by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research found that college students in 2010 were 40 percent less empathetic than their counterparts were in 1979. There’s no hard data on why, but researchers have a hunch: exposure to media, especially violent media, which some believe numbs us to the pain of others. They also point to one of the more interesting paradoxes of social media: Constant and frequent exposure to “friends” online gives you the luxury of just tuning out when you don’t feel like dealing with the messy feelings of others. There’s no in-the-moment imperative, no real-life sad face to stare into as you grope for words of apology, of consolation or encouragement. It’s so much easier now: You can get to it later…or maybe never. With fewer chances to practice empathy, there comes a sort of empathy entropy, or so many are starting to fear.

But just as we parents were smugly blaming media for our increasingly rotten kids, along comes a study that seems to lay the blame pretty squarely on us. Though many of us say we value empathy and compassion very highly, we are apparently not saying it believably, at least not to our kids. Last year, Harvard University’s Making Caring Common Project released the results of a study in which 10,000 middle school and high school students were asked to rank what was most important to them: achieving at a high level, happiness or caring for others. Almost 80 percent picked high achievement or happiness as their top choice. And 80 percent said that their parents are more concerned about achievement or happiness than caring for others. They were also three times more likely to agree than disagree with this statement: “My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my classes than if I’m a caring community member in class and school.”

What’s really behind the empathy deficit, then, may be more about parental disconnect then technology uber-connect. So says Mary Gordon, the founder of Roots of Empathy, a groundbreaking international empathy training program for kids. “I don’t blame technology for the empathy deficit,” Gordon says.  “It’s really about how the landscape of childhood has changed.” Gordon, whose program is used in schools all over the world — including 67 schools in the greater Seattle area — has a front-row seat to modern childhood. She believes what’s increasingly missing from these days is family hang time.

“I’m certainly not opposed to these apps,” Gordon says, “but if we think we’re doing our parental duty by getting our children apps to develop empathy, we’d better first look at how our little ones are spending their days.” Life is so complex and stressful, she says, that our primary relationships are suffering. “Parents are the no. 1 teachers of empathy for children. It flowers or fades with parental attention and attunement,” which leads to the ability of being emotionally attuned to others, laying the groundwork for empathy.

“If you’re thinking about downloading an empathy app for your child,” Gordon says, “go download a basketball, or a trip to the park. Children learn most by being with their parents. And they learn best not when we’re teaching, but when we’re being.”

No sub for IRL

“When you read about what children need for their brain development, to handle stress and for social emotional learning, it’s play. Play is magic for children,” says clinical psychologist Laura Kastner, Ph.D. Kastner, the author of the just-released Getting to Calm: The Early Years (which was edited by this writer and published by ParentMap), doesn’t object to empathy apps per se — especially ones that validate emotions, particularly negative ones — but says that playtime and real social interaction are vastly more effective in developing character in kids. And by this, she means play in real life, not virtual play. Also needed: bringing the newspaper to an elderly neighbor, writing thank-you notes, and a host of other character-enhancing activities Kastner outlines in her book.

“I think compassion and empathy fall by the wayside because our focus is on achievement and getting ahead,” says Kastner. “But the busier you are — wound up with stress and worry — the less likely you are to do something as boring as play with your child, or sit quietly with people and really read their faces, which are the real ways we develop empathy.”

It’s just this stress and worry that leads parents to seek backup — purchasing gummy vites to supplement nutrition, say, or buying apps to cover the character bases. “There’s no easier place to extract a dollar than from a worried parent,” says Lenore Skenazy, a popular speaker, blogger and the author of Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry). “So companies create the belief that good character won’t happen naturally, and that you need their product.”

“But to say that you must didactically teach empathy is an insult to the human race,” Skenazy says. “The idea that suddenly we need to literally teach character to kids — as if they wouldn’t develop it naturally — is evidence of a profound loss of belief in our children, in nature and in ourselves.”

“You want an empathy app?” Skenazy asks. “It’s called the sandbox. It’s called playtime. When kids have to decide whether to throw the ball easier to the little kids, how to make the team — all of that is learning empathy.”

Bridging the gap

Rather than teaching empathy per se, researcher Anna Ly has developed a new app that aims to create calm and mindfulness — so kids are more receptive to learning empathy. Working with The Fred Rogers Center, Ly has created Whoooshh, an app that incorporates breath into storytelling, encouraging kids as young as 3 to advance the story by breathing or humming into their tablet’s microphone. In one scene, children use calm breathing to coax an ox out of hiding; heavy breathing or loud noises will scare the ox away. 

“The children are just completely quiet when they’re playing with this app,” Ly says. “It’s just astonishing.” One reason for the app’s success might be its novelty; when Mimi Phan’s three kids — Peter, 4, Sarah, 7, and Andrew, 9 — tested Whoooshh, they were surprisingly engaged. “The app is novel,” says the Metuchen, New Jersey, mom. “The fact that it is different requires the children to reframe how they would interact with the app, asking for help or problem solving in ways that are creative and nontraditional.”

Ly, who is the senior manager of business and creative ventures for the Sesame Workshop and an Early Career Fellow with The Fred Rogers Center, says choosing the app platform — rather than a workbook, say, or flash cards — was a no-brainer for her, given the increasing trend towards device-connected kids. “This is where kids are today: on their devices. We need to find ways to utilize the time kids spend on devices to learn something that will benefit them, and even the world.”

“I think empathy is the thing that is going to save the world,” Ly says. “When people feel what other people feel, a lot of the problems in today’s world could be solved.”

The app, which is free, was released last month; whether or not it can be mapped directly back to a successful outcome — short of world salvation, at least kinder, gentler kids — remains to be seen. But it does seem to be part of a technology trend toward bridging the gap between virtual and real-world empathy.

“The best way for kids to learn is by doing,” says Gregg Murset, CEO of Leap Spring and creator of the newly-released app Zingity. “If you want your kid to be more kind, get them doing kind things. If you want your kid to learn sportsmanship, put them in sports.”

Zingity gives kids ages 5–15 the chance to work through “activity packs,” real-world assignments that are mapped to several of 46 different character traits. It’s a bit like earning a Brownie badge. The activities are designed to be parent-supervised, bite size and fun, so kids build character without even realizing it, working toward a reward of some kind, such as going out for ice cream or getting a new teddy bear. 

A child working on the cooking pack, for instance, might bake cookies for a neighbor, learning baking skills, and also compassion and kindness in the process, according to Murset. A sports-themed pack might require a child to organize a pickup basketball game, getting off the couch while learning organizational and leadership skills. The idea is to provide a framework to prompt real-world action.

“I think it motivates kids to do things that they may never have thought to do,” says Jennifer Morse, whose two daughters, Kayla, 10, and Sara, 12, tested Zingity. Morse and her husband are junior high coaches at their Surprise, Arizona, church, and see a lot of room for improvement in the character skills of kids at those ages. “There are so many kids nowadays that feel like they are owed something,” she says. “Their parents just drop them off and pay money for them to do stuff, but don’t actually teach them what it means to be a good person. Sometimes kids just don’t know what to do. This at least pushes them to do things.”

“It’s not about watching two animated penguins learn to walk in each other’s flippers,” Murset says. “It’s about learning things like patience and respect by actually doing things. Go take flowers to your friend who got bullied at recess today. Go visit someone who has a health challenge.

“Next time you go to the store, stand there and hold the door open for somebody. When was the last time you saw a kid do that?”

On these ultimate lessons, it seems, everyone can agree “Parents are so conscientious about teaching everything these days — nutrition, responsibility to the environment, composting, now even empathy — that they really don’t have enough relaxed jammy time, enough time just doing things together,” Gordon says.

“I don’t think parents appreciate how powerful the easy moments are.” 

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