It seems empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of others, is something we could all use a bit more of today.
While we can’t control how strangers treat each other, we do have influence over our families: Let’s sew the seeds that nurture empathy.
Fully sighted little ones notice facial expressions; they begin to realize other people are displaying emotions. Babies as young as nine months of age look to others to gauge how they should respond to situations. If you’re curious about this and how children typically develop empathy, check out Scholastic’s Ages and States: Empathy article.
We can help small children who are blind or visually impaired learn these same skills by explicitly teaching them about the emotions and concerns for others. To learn how to teach empathy to children who are blind or have low vision read FamilyConnect’s Teaching Empathy article.
Nobody receives a play-by-play of other’s emotions, regardless of whether a child is fully sighted or visually impaired. This is why all children benefit from not only identifying emotions in themselves, but also hearing about emotions and thoughts in others. As parents, we can have numerous conversations about how experiences and comments make us feel.
Another tool to help our children understand the innerworkings of others’ minds is reading.
While there are numerous benefits to gathering your kiddos and exploring new worlds through books, the benefit of helping our children develop empathy is what we’ll focus on here.
Consider how narratives provide insight into the thought life of characters.
Just this morning I read our current morning read “The Wind in the Willows” to my elementary age daughters; in today’s portion of the story, three different animals took a journey by caravan, rather like a motorhome pulled by a horse. One friend, Toad, consistently boasted of his fine home and possessions. This made his friends uncomfortable. He also slept until late morning on the caravan bunks while his friends, Mole and Rat, busily cleaned the previous night’s dishes, prepped the caravan for the day’s journey, and prepared breakfast. They weren’t keen on Toad not pulling his share of the housework and did confront him.
Yes, I could tell my girls not to boast and to help with housework, but how much more meaningful are the lessons learned from immersing oneself in the life of the character and feeling what it’s like to hear repeated bragging and be left with an unbalanced share of responsibility.
Another book we read this year was The Hundred Dresses about a girl who was teased for wearing the same dress every day. You can imagine what we gleaned and discussed.
Don’t think that the book must be explicitly about how actions make people feel. Consider the following empathy-related benefits gained from reading a wide variety of stories:
- Simply listening to inner dialogue demonstrates that others do in fact have robust inner-thought lives.
- Hearing how others interpret hurtful or scary experiences helps us recognize our own thoughts about similar events.
- By reading about a vast number of characters, we realize people don’t always think the same way we do.
- We realize others have different experiences than we do.
- Reading biographies of men, women, and children who bravely changed the course of history gives us a better understanding of why they boldly made the decisions they did.
So, set aside time in your daily routine to cozy up and read together. Set sail on literary adventures, and you’ll be exploring the world of empathy.