LitLife

How to raise lifelong readers and writers.

Raising a Reader: Learning Empathy

Why reading to children creates a more peaceful society overall.

The family and educator's work in helping a child build empathy to others cannot be underestimated as key to not only that child's outcomes, but the outcomes of a peaceful society overall.

Conversations and proposed solutions abound for the end to bullying in our schools. Programs are presented. The children may be given "trainings" and "preventions." I want to posit that while these programs might help to some degree, they are not a complete solution. I believe that a steady diet of books read to the child and offered for independent reading are more of a sustainable solution to the problem of distance between people.

Every child, every single one, has the capacity for empathy—for understanding and respecting the emotions and perspectives of others. As a learned trait, empathy is dependent on the efforts of educators and caregivers to ensure that the next generation is comprised of caring and compassionate individuals. 

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Some years ago, while traveling, I was the victim of a crime. As I looked into the eyes of our robber, I realized he was a very young man, a boy really. I did not have any hate for him. I had extreme sadness and a sense of the loss of his potential. The most unexpected thing that crossed my mind was this: if someone had read to him as a child, nourished him, nurtured him, given him a chance to see the world of others, he might not be standing in front of me in that moment on that day. I touched his hand, and I looked into his eyes. I let him know things would be ok. He withdrew from me, but not before I saw the pain in his eyes. I saw this aggressor turn back into a young boy. I felt pain in my heart thinking how different things could have been for him, and for me too, not to have this memory live with me now forever.

There is much we can do for all our children, whether they be our own or others. The simplest, easiest, cheapest thing we can do to build connection between people is to read to every child. Here are some reasons why:

1) Reading allows children to conceptualize a world beyond the world of "self."

For children and adults alike it is not always easy to conceive of a world beyond our own reality. It is far more natural for us to assume that our thoughts and beliefs are the norm than to recognize that the world is far more complex and diverse. By opening a book we are transported into someone else’s world. Past, present, future, real or fictional; stories are our passports, allowing us to travel the depth of human experience. While a reader’s time in each character’s world is temporary, learning to see the world through another person’s eyes is a skill that endures. 

By connecting with characters, children see firsthand that stories belong to everyone. Books serve as both mirrors and windows. As mirrors, they provide reassurance that no matter how isolating an experience may feel, there will always be others who have similarly endured and prevailed. As windows, they provide us with a way to see out into the worlds of others, of lives that are actually nothing like ours, and let us know that we are all human, and our feelings are universal.

2) Reading opens us up to the power of multiple perspectives.

Learning that there is more than one side to every story is a challenging lesson for children (and adults) in the abstract. Exposure and access to a wide genre of texts with multiple perspectives helps children to understand that every person will interpret similar events and experiences differently. Books that tell a story from multiple perspectives, such as A.J. Palacio’s "Wonder," or even the simpler "Frog and Toad" series by Arnold Lobel are excellent in communicating how each individual provides a version of events all their own. By observing the many sides that come with every story, readers are encouraged to take the time to listen and exercise understanding instead of defaulting to snap judgments.

3) Reading aloud strengthens the child's listening skills. 

By engaging with story, children develop skills fundamental to empathizing with others. The most important of these is listening. One cannot empathize without first being an attentive listener. By surrendering themselves fully to story, children learn how to become open and deeply absorbed in the thoughts and ideas of others. This process enables them to gain a deeper understanding of the weight of words, and the importance of focusing on the story being shared. By teaching our children not only how to listen, but also why we must listen to every voice, stories produce a generation of intentional listeners fortified with the power of observation, making them willing and able to empathize. The art of listening is no small thing. The leaning in, the embrace of story, the openness to a story washing in, are all ways for the young child to practice the art of deep listening.

4) Reading builds the child's awareness of making choices and living a mindful life.

Showing children the connection between their actions and the impact of their actions on others— both the positive and negative impact—is critical in developing self-awareness. It is through story that children can practice placing themselves in different circumstances and imagining their own reactions. Stories demonstrate the importance of taking other people’s feelings into account by displaying the effect a character’s actions have on others. The stories we share help children to simulate experiences in their minds before they experience them in the world itself. They can ask: "How would I react?" "What would I do in this situation?" Books like "The Hundred Dresses" by Eleanor Estes and "Chrysanthemum" by Kevin Henkes help our children envision themselves in those situations, both as the main characters and also as those who impact the main character, and to ask themselves who is the person they want to be. These are crucial questions and reading gives us the chance to go down many roads theoretically.

I wish for a world of peace. I know there is a lot of work to do. And sometimes people might think my response, "read aloud to a child," is overly simplistic. But I think this is a powerful tool, and that the human story, revealed to each other, can truly bring us together.

We can start with our own children and in our neighborhood schools, for and with the children we know and do not know. Just think: if you share a book with a child today, you may be creating world peace for tomorrow. For empathy: knowing that everyone in the world has a story, is how peace begins.

Pam Allyn is the Executive Director of LitLife, a national organization specializing in innovative literacy education for schools and families.

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