Friday, December 2, 2016

Learning Empathy Through Literature

How do we teach our children right from wrong? How do we teach them that bullying is unacceptable? How do we teach them to stand up for what is right, that if they find themselves in a situation where bullying or harassment is happening they should be upstanders and not bystanders? How do we teach them to respect others, especially those who might be of a different religious or ethnic background? How do we teach them that differences are to be celebrated, not condemned? How do we teach our children to be good, decent, moral individuals? How do we teach them empathy?

We teach them Jewish values, of course, values like b’tzelem Elohim and kavod. We teach them that all of us are made in the image of God and therefore all of us are deserving of respect. We model kind and generous behavior. When they’re ready, we honestly answer their hard questions about the world, and why things are sometimes the way they are and not the way we think they should be. We teach them to volunteer, to participate, to stand up and make a difference.

There is another, scientifically proven, way to teach our children empathy, how to understand and share the feelings and experiences of others. How to make sense of and respect people whose lives are so different from theirs. We read to them. Specifically, we read fiction.

Numerous studies* have shown that reading fiction teaches empathy. Simply, people who read fiction score better on empathy tests. When we lose ourselves in a good story, when we identify with or relate to the protagonist, when we laugh or cry with our favorite characters, when we get into their heads and feel what they’re feeling, we’re exercising the same parts of our brains that we use in the real world when we to try to understand how and why someone thinks and feels the way they do.

Any of my Gesher students will tell you that Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell is my favorite children’s book. Based on true events, it’s a fictionalized account of a 19th century Native woman left behind on an island off the coast of California when her people leave for the mainland. Named Karana, she lives alone for 18 years. She tames a wild dog who becomes her pet, Rontu.

I read this story aloud to every class I had, and every year I wept uncontrollably when Rontu dies. Every year I’d psych myself up when that chapter rolled around; I’d tell myself to keep it together. But I couldn’t. Ever. In reading the story aloud, I had become Karana, and her profound loss was mine, too. Just about every year my students would sit in stunned silence as I cried; some years, some would cry with me. I knew it was somehow important to share this experience with them, but it wasn’t until I became familiar with these studies about fiction and empathy that I really began to understand why.

So, if you needed another reason to read to your child, or encourage them to read, this is it. Reading doesn’t just improve our focus and expand our vocabulary, it actually makes us kinder, better people. Read on.

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