“What trait do kids really need to be happy and successful?” Over the years, hundreds of parents have asked me that question. My answer surprises most: empathy. More than acing tests or earning fancy degrees, kids–and adults–who understand and appreciate the people around them are better able to collaborate, innovate and problem-solve. Studies show they’re happier too.
Unfortunately, in America, we have a serious empathy deficit. I call it the “Selfie Syndrome.” Thanks in part to the rise of social media, as well as changes in our culture and parenting styles, today’s kids are more self-absorbed than ever; one study estimates narcissism rates among college students are up 58% versus three decades ago. And this has given rise to a culture of bullying, cheating and unhappiness. One in five middle-school students contemplates suicide as a solution to peer cruelty, 70% of college kids admit to cheating in class, and one-third of all college students report having felt so depressed that they had trouble functioning.
Cultivating empathy has traditionally been low on child-rearing to-do lists. (After all, when’s the last time you saw a bumper sticker that said Proud parent of a kind kid?) But we need to make it a priority, both at home and in schools. At stake if we don’t? Everything we hope for in our children’s future–and our own.
Borba is an educational psychologist and author of UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World
This appears in the June 06, 2016 issue of TIME.