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The Importance of Reading To Foster Empathy

Published on July 25, 2018 by in parenting, teaching

Girl with books

In my view, one of the best educational and community hacks of all times is the library.  Why?  They are organizations devoted to growing minds through books.   Books have the ability to send us to new worlds of adventure, help us consider diverse perspectives, and exercise our imagination.  Today, I wanted to introduce you to one of my best friends from church and expert homeschool teacher, Lisa Twardowski.  She has amazing, thoughtful and talented kids.   We enjoy getting our families together to do maker education projects.   I really appreciated her post on the empathy you learn from books.   Hope you enjoy it.

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As I sit sipping my hot tea after I have tucked my children into bed, I ponder the questions they asked during our nightly read aloud.  While the youngest, our daughter, was still brushing her teeth, I began reading, “The Dangerous Book of Heroes” to our boys. They opted for an entry entitled, “The Abolition of Slavery in England”.  As soon as we started the story, the boys said we would need to stop before their sister joined us, but it was too late. She was already in tears in the other room, asking how one person could possibly feel like they had the right to own or sell another person – a human being!?  One of her brothers explained that that is just the way the world is, while the other brother tried to explain that it is not okay and no one should do it.

We all opted to move on to our family read aloud, “Little House on the Prairie”.  Safe, I mistakenly thought. The title of the chapter we were reading, “The Tall Indian”.  In this chapter, Laura describes her mother’s disgust at the Indians who are using the well-worn trail that is near their new home in Missouri.  Pa mentions that if he had known that trail was the Indian highroad, he never would have built his home so close to it. Laura asks question after question about the Indians: why will they have to move west (because the government will make them) and isn’t this their territory (yes, but white men are moving here now).

The topics, so unfamiliar to us today – at least to my young children – were upsetting, thought-provoking, and cause for pause and reflection.  They felt empathic; they have the ability to imagine or share the feelings of another.

Empathy is something that cannot be taught, it must be understood, lived, experienced.  One person cannot live in every situation, so how do we “learn” empathy? TV isn’t working; computer games aren’t working; apps – as great as they are, aren’t getting the job done.  What is a mom or dad to do – our future generation is at stake! Empathy is now one of the Top 10 Skills employers are looking for in their new hires. Why? Because so many of our young people today are not able to put themselves in a situation outside of the one they are living.

So, how do we solve this problem of learning to be empathic?  It’s as simple as words in print: Books. Do you remember those?  A stack of bound paper with words and sometimes pictures printed in ink, some with a funny smell.  It’s the words printed on those pages that are the important part of this story. Sure, now you can read the printed word on a screen, and even get the sounds effects of turning a page – which works just fine too, but it is those words.  It’s the words that tell the stories of lives and journeys and events that the reader can never live, but can experience through those written words. The reader can become familiar with characters, and practices, and locations that they may never get to visit – or that no longer exist except through that written word.

Reading is a big deal these days.  Sometimes we think reading is the magic key that will unlock any door.  And while I am certainly a believer that reading can fix many of our problems, I do think it is VERY important to choose what we, and our children, are reading carefully.  Captain Crazy Cape is not going elicit more than crass humor from our children. Diary of Anyone is probably not worth our time. What goes in will come out – it works in the stomach and the brain.

There are some great book recommendations online – and what you will find after reading enough of those lists is that as that they contain a lot of the same books.  Not all the books are old, but those tend to be the ones most often turned to. Some of the books I have read recently that really stirred me are middle-grade novels, many written in the 1950s.  The following is not a complete list, as I don’t believe such a thing can exist, but any of these books are a good place to begin.

  • Stuart Little
  • Charlotte’s Web
  • Little House on the Prairie Series
  • Sarah, Plain, and Tall
  • The 100 Dresses
  • Number the Stars
  • Heidi
  • Amos Fortune, Free Man
  • The Secret Garden
  • Tuck Everlasting
  • Carry On, Mr. Bowditch
  • Where the Red Fern Grows
  • Island of the Blue Dolphin
  • Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World: The Extrodinary True Story of Shackleton and the Endurance
  • Johnny Tremain
  • Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry
  • Men of Iron
  • The Bronze Bow
  • The Giver (Upper Middle School, High School, and Adult)
  • Silas Marner (Upper Middle School, High School, and Adult)
  • The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (High School and Adult)
  • The Hiding Place (a must read for ALL High School students and Adults)

There is no magic fix all in any of these books.  Some are true accounts of the authors’ lives, some are historical fiction, and still, others are fiction outright.  All tell the story of humankind: the hardship and failures, the successes and joys. Each will allow the reader to walk a mile in another person’s shoes.  These stories span historical times, locations, race, and socio-economic classes, but they all deal with characters who struggle with one issue or another, but find hope to continue on.  

Most of these situations are not things we can even offer our children, nor would we want to: to become an orphan, or a slave, or a science experiment.  But they can see life through another’s eyes and learn what it may have been like to have those struggles, and think those thoughts, and possibly make different choices – or at least ponder, “what would I have done?”  To be empathic to another’s struggles and life. To gain the ability to imagine or share in the feelings of another, all from the safety of the sofa.

As LeVar Burton of Reading Rainbow so often reminded us, “But you don’t have to take my word for it…”  

Lisa Twardowski

 

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