Thursday, July 3, 2014

What We Are Reading: Building Empathy

Empathetic children. It's a characteristic most of us can agree we want our children to have. We're not the only ones. Experts have been talking a lot about it. I was reminded of this when I read this great article .

It was about why it's so important for boys and how to foster it. I giggled a little, not because I thought it was silly, but because one of the first tips was about giving little boys baby dolls. It reminded me of a certain story I shared with you. 

The other tips where great too. One was about reading with our children. It talks about a gap in reading to girls vs. boys by parents. The gap starts even before a first birthday. This makes me so sad, but I can totally relate. 

Reading is one of my greatest loves and I have been waiting so long to share that love with my child(ren). When Animal wanted nothing to do with books I could have literally cried. I refused to give up, reading daily to him. Eventually the day came when he picked his own story. It just got better from there. I could have given up, would have given up, if reading didn't mean so much to me. 

Empathy is an important skill for both sexes, it fosters courage, happiness and even success in the work place. 

Children's books are a great place to begin to build this essential skill. Books allow children to experience different points of view. To understand why others feel sad, happy, excited, scared, or lonely. To name their feelings. When you read to your child you can facilitate this process. You can ask leading questions like," What do you think the boy is feeling?" , "Why do you think he's scared?", or  "What would you do if this was happening to you?"

I have noticed my son has a hard time understanding when I'm upset. If I scowl and ask, "Am I happy or grumpy?" he can easily identify how I feel. I reward him with happy faces as well. He has really responded to this and I find he is more easily redirected this way. We can hone this skill at story time. When we read I like to ask, "Does he have a happy face or a grumpy face?" 

At work I use this technique as well. If someone is unkind or aggressive in my class room I ask them to look at their friend, how do they look? How do they think their friend is feeling right now? And finally, What can you do to make your friend feel better? Even two year old can start to understand and contemplate these things. By the end of the year I don't have to prompt them very often, they learn what to look for and how to make a situation right. Don't get me wrong, they are children and don't always care to make things right, but it's not about creating submissive robots, it's about giving them the tools to function socially.

There are many children's books specifically about feelings, and how to deal with them. There are also books like, HEY, LITTLE ANT By Phillip and Hannah Hoose.  That directly ask children to think about how they or others may feel. They are great. But don't think you have to limit yourself to books like this. Fiction titles are especially good at doing the same thing in a profound and meaningful way. 

I can still remember sobbing when I read Where The Red Fern Grows. Or how concerned I was for Ponyboy and Johnny. These characters along with hundreds of others taught me about being someone outside of myself. Outside of my comfort and even made me care for or understand someone I may have otherwise written off or disliked. The empathy that can be built when you step outside of yourself and into someone elses' shoes it's unparalleled,  because there just no other way to feel what someone else feels and think their thoughts and live their outside influences as well.

Empathetic children, another reason to read to your child.

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