Sunday, November 13, 2016

Choose Kindness. Teach Empathy. Listen Actively.

I've spent much of the past week stunned and saddened by the presidential election, but I've also been reflecting on what we can do to make a difference. What messages are we sending to children about the way we behave? How do we treat each other? And what role do books and stories play in this process?

Stories help us see into the lives of other people, as well as into our own lives. New research shows that reading fiction improves empathy. We connect to characters; we feel their pain and delight in their joy. Sharing stories brings us closer together, in classroom communities and at home. It's more than stories, though--it's the conversations that stories can start.

Choose Kindness. We can actively shape the conversations by choosing books that focus on kindness. In my experience, though, kids don't like stories which are just supposed to teach a lesson. They want stories that grab their attention, help them see the world in a new way.

RJ Palacio's book Wonder remains one of my students' favorite books, especially as an audiobook (see my full review).  Auggie feels like an ordinary kid, but he knows that others don't see him that way. Readers are able to see life from a completely different perspective, and kids can see the impact of choices that they make.

Teach Empathy. Through conversations we have about stories, we are able to talk with children about what it means to understand someone else's feelings. We must then bring the conversations into their own lives, asking children to think about when they've noticed someone else thinking about another person's feelings.

Flocabulary has a terrific song & video my 4th grade students have been loving: Building Empathy. We are starting each library session singing this chorus:
I got empathy, I got empathy,
If you need a friend, you can count on me.
I put myself in other people's shoes,
To understand their thoughts and their moods.
Young children think best in concrete examples. Stories like The Sandwich Swap help young children think about examples in their own lives. Ask children about when they've seen other kids making a difference? For more picture books to share and start a conversation, I highly recommend this list put together by the Association for Library Services to Children:
ALSC booklist: Unity. Kindness. Peace.
Listen Actively. Children want to be listened to. Heck, all of us want to be listened to. But how can we listen to each other if we're all clamoring to be heard?

It's imperative that we listen to each other, especially to folks who have a different point of view, a different life experience. My biggest concern with society today is that we are isolated in different bubbles. We work hard to listen, but we are only listening to friends who share our opinions.

Active listening is the most important tool we can use at home, at school, in our political discourse. The Center for the Greater Good, based in Berkeley, describes active listening as expressing "active interest in what the other person has to say and make him or her feel heard." It is their number one advice in how to cultivate empathy.

Thank you, friends and readers, for your support and for sharing stories with children. Your work makes a difference.

©2016 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books


  1. Thank you for such a thoughtful post, Mary Ann. I had many of the same thoughts in my post this week on Red Canoe Reader. We must all remember to "choose kind" and truly listen to our friends, family members and neighbors.

  2. Absolutely, Mary Ann, couldn't agree more with all this. Thanks for sharing these thoughts. I am thinking more and more how important it is to break out of our bubbles and spend time with people of OPPOSING views, not just remain talking to those who agree wholeheartedly with us. Otherwise society will continue to become more and more divided.