20/03/2017 12:04 GMT | Updated 21/03/2018 05:12 GMT

Building Empathy One App At A Time

One of our earliest and most primal skills is a form of empathy. Many newborns, within a day or two of birth, will start to cry when exposed to the sounds of other kids crying. And yet, true empathy takes years to nurture and is often hard won. But, empathy is one of the most valuable skills we can give our kids today. Kids who are empathetic not only do better in social situations but also tend to perform better in school and in their careers as adults.

At this moment when both people and nations are retreating from each other, actively nurturing empathy is more important than ever. While it's easy to think that all good parents and educators model empathy, research shows we often focus on achievement instead. We have to take time to talk about what it means to think about others, their lives and stories. Stories enhance our ability to empathise with others. When trying to get my own kids to understand other people's stories, I tell them we are all connected by invisible threads. The more you pay attention to other people, the more you feel those threads hitched to your own soul.

Harvard University's Making Caring Common Project provides five practical guidelines to help parents and kids develop empathy. Their recommendations are, in short, to: show empathy towards your child and for others; care about the feelings and well-being of others and set a high expectation that your kids do, too; give your kids chances to practice empathy; grow the circle of people that you care for and empathise with; and help kids identify and manage their own feelings. To help make these things a part of your family's everyday life and conversations, media can serve as a great entry point. Books can be wonderful conversation starters, as can films, television, and apps. For example, Avokiddo Emotions helps kids identify their feelings and Toontastic is a fantastic tool to practice empathy by encouraging storytelling.

As we make apps at Tinybop we're always thinking about kids' social and emotional development, in addition to their academic and creative growth. In one of our earliest apps, Homes, kids can play and explore inside homes around the world, in places like Mongolia, Brooklyn, Guatemala, and Yemen. The thinking behind this app was inspired in part by a school that lets kids take their classmates on field trips into their own homes so each can experience how the others live. The kids at this school grew their circles across their city. In apps like Homes, kids can grow their circles across the globe to include the lives of people they might only know about through (often negative) news.

As a contentious U.S. election took over the news worldwide in 2016, teachers told us they wanted an app that more directly helped them prompt conversations about empathy with kids. Angry political speech that was dividing the country was trickling down into classrooms. As a parent, I heard this myself. My son came home upset when a group of 4th graders surrounded a Latina teacher's assistant and started chanting, "Build a wall. Build a wall." It was a shocking moment for me as a parent and it led to long discussions about why he empathised with the teacher (we're a mixed race family) and why the other kids, including some of his friends, did not.

I knew there was another opportunity here for apps to help kids think about other's lives and stories. In our app, Me by Tinybop, kids create avatars of themselves and the people they love and can then ask and answer personal questions like, "What makes you sad? What's your favourite food? How does this person make you feel?" Young kids can move from sharing things about themselves and identifying their own feelings to learning about others' likes, fears, and lives. Apps can and should help kids construct, tell, and share these stories. I believe these apps are even more powerful when used in a school where kids are encouraged to tell their stories to each other. When one kid hears a story about what makes another kid lonely or scared, conversations bloom.

Whether you're discussing books, or apps, or something that happened in class on a particular day, I believe these conversations are vital. Thinking out loud with kids about other people's experiences helps them better understand the world and helps us better understand our children. And maybe--if we're lucky--in these conversations, we'll fasten a few more invisible threads between us.