Children may be smarter than ever, but their capacity for empathy – the much touted antidote to bullying – has reportedly reached new lows.

Psychotherapist Graham Music, of London, England, said his growing alarm at the rise of callous, selfish behaviour observed in three decades of clinical practice became the impetus for his new book, The Good Life: Wellbeing and the New Science of Altruism, Selfishness and Immorality,published this month by Routledge and available on Amazon Canada.

Drawing from nearly 600 academic sources on child development and moral psychology, He argues that harried parenting and rampant materialism are making children meaner and more self-absorbed. Raised to prize consumer goods over people, children with low empathy are turning into narcissistic adults who have never learned the intrinsic rewards of social belonging and interdependence, he writes.

But toy-crazed kids aren’t doomed, Music told The Globe. Here he explains how parents can steer children away from self-obsession.

How is it that parents with altruistic values are raising self-centred kids?

It’s partly by exposing them to materialistic values – it’s amazing how much money is spent on advertising to kids. The other thing is that life has become much more stressful. parents feel guilty because they’re busy and give kids what they want right away, which leads to an inability to delay gratification. We want the best for our kids, and take them to music class, art class and [soccer]. But if we’re not spending quiet, loving time together, these things become at risk because that’s how they are learned. We might have the right values, but we’re not putting them into practice.

How does consumer culture breed narcissism?

The idea of consumer culture is to try to sell us things to make us feel better, and often better than other people. Research shows that people who care more about status symbols, what they look like or being famous, have more mental health problems, and if you are exposed to those values, you are more likely to become unhappy. People who place greater value on being with the people they care about and doing things they believe in, tend to be healthier, both physically and mentally. But consumerism is addictive … Once self-interest wins, it’s hard to get the other side back.

What are the most powerful things parents can do to counteract consumerism?

Live by example, making sure there’s time to help a neighbour, or get involved in community activities. Mindfulness activities can make a huge difference – they really do trigger different parts of our brains – and many can be done with kids, such as being still, concentrating and showing an interest in things such as bird songs. We can learn from our children instead of trying to force them into our pace.

Attachment parenting focuses on the nurturing connection that parents can develop with their children. How can a touchy-feely approach help children thrive in a competitive work force?

We know from attachment theory that securely attached kids are often quite successful, bright and very good at interpersonal relationships. Those are good skills that help you later in life – competitively, if you like, but also allow the kind of reciprocity and mutual kindness that help you feel good.

Does that mean you support attachment parenting?

Attachment parenting doesn’t have much to do with attachment theory, which looks at things such as parental sensitivity. In the West, we give kids so much attention that it can risk creating a very unboundaried, narcissistic kid. If you study some of the hunter-gatherer communities on which attachment theory is based, they do not encourage people to think they are the centre of the universe, even though children absolutely get what they need on demand. There’s a very powerful cultural ethos – group first, individual second.

You argue that shaming has an upside.

A lot of hunter-gatherer cultures use shaming, but often in a subtle, humorous way. You know that if you go slightly out of line, you’re going to be teased mercilessly, but you’re not going to be made to feel like you’re a bad human being. So you don’t get narcissistically wounded about it – You laugh at yourself and get on with it.

How can parents teach moral expectations in a secular society?

It’s a real problem. We no longer have the Ten Commandments up on the wall; fewer children are joining the Boy Scouts [and Girl Guides], which have their own codes and are probably incredibly effective for kids. Some families put secular practices in place, such as holding hands in gratitude before meals. Those things can be really helpful, but it’s a shame that every family has to invent rituals that have been around in our evolutionary history, in some form or other, for tens of thousands of years.

The Globe and Mail
Published Thursday, May. 29 2014, 3:02 PM EDT
Last updated Thursday, May. 29 2014, 3:13 PM EDT