BY Meredith Flory

Meredith Flory is an Augusta area freelance writer, military spouse and mother of two. She has a masters degree in children’s literature from Kansas State University and has taught high school and college English.As a graduate teaching assistant at Kansas State University, I was given the opportunity to teach Children’s Literature to a group of undergraduate students working towards jobs in education.  Overwhelmingly, my students expressed the opinion that the children’s stories we read were too dark and depressing. Some didn’t remember reading scary or sad things as a child, even though they remembered some of the same books. One student finally disagreed with her classmates while discussing the book Locomotion, a poetry collection where the main character is a young, black orphan in foster care, pointing out that if a child had experienced a death in his or her family, reading a book like that could help the child deal with their own emotions.  

Now, as a stay at home mother, my responsibilities in choosing books have shifted from my students to my own children, and I want to choose books appropriate for their ages that also help them with the frustrating emotions of childhood and expose them to new ideas. While it may seem like common sense that reading can help us address our own emotions, research now shows reading may also help us understand the emotions of others in a compassionate way—in other words, the choices we make concerning what our children read could very well teach them to be more empathetic—a quality that seems to be missing from our media driven world and is important in developing relationships.

 Stories Can Shirt Attitudes About Others

In the case of a book like Locomotion, the main character Lonnie’s story isn’t just powerful for children that have lost a parent, grown up in foster care or dealt with any of the protagonist’s other challenges, but it might help readers be more empathetic and caring towards their peers who have had similar experiences or help them process real world issues in the safe space of fiction.  

Recent research published in Scientific American showed that when children read stories with friendships between different groups of people, their own attitudes towards marginalized groups became more positive. One study in particular showed that children who read the Harry Potter series saw an increase in their empathy levels, “likely in part because Potter is continually in contact with stigmatized groups.”  

A friend of mine from graduate school, Melissa, has two school-aged boys who love to read. She shared that she sees the results of gaining insight and empathy from fiction in the way her boys talk about fictional characters. She told me that one book, Out of My Mind, a story for older children about a girl with cerebral palsy, helped her son Evan understand the perspective of someone with different communication abilities, and that he shared after reading, “Just because someone is (dis)abled doesn’t mean that they don’t have feelings.”

Picking the Right Stories

One way we can help our increase their ability to empathize with others is to make sure we are encouraging their book choices when the characters have distinct differences from our kids. For example, do we not encourage or allow boys to read stories with female protagonists, while not batting an eyelash when a girl picks up a story about a boy?  The majority of children’s literature focuses on male characters, and while that may not seem like a big deal on a day-to-day basis, what we read shows what stories we feel are universal and important.  

After continually being told that her books were for girls as she went to speak at schools, but noticing that male authors were not likewise told their books were for boys only, author Shannon Hale asked the School Library Journal, “If we’re teaching young boys that women’s voices don’t matter, then what do we expect when men get older and have to coexist with women in the workplace?” I might add that it isn’t even just the workforce where it would be helpful if women’s stories were viewed as important. For the sake of any possible future daughter-in-law, her interview somewhat comically encourages me to think about directing my son towards a few books with female protagonists. We don’t have to have the same goals as a character to enjoy a story about their journey, but reading can help us be more respectful of others’ experiences and viewpoints.

I still remember the impact Mildred Taylor’s book Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry had on my emotional understanding of the Civil Rights movement and inequality in America, and I want my children to experience the same “Aha!” moments, but as parents we can also think about our children’s ability to empathize in smaller ways.  

Recently, I was tackling the issue of my toddler wanting to constantly touch or wake-up her sleeping infant brother and I stumbled across the picture book Shhhh! at the library. As my daughter and I read about a little boy protecting his baby brother from noises while he was napping, and how when his brother woke up he could be loud again, I knew it wasn’t a magic wand that would make her understand the need to stop pestering the little one. However, it did allow us to talk about how hard it is for big siblings when there’s a new one around and how they could be big helpers like the boy in the book. At the very least, reading to her is a quiet and fun way to spend her brother’s naptime.

Meredith Flory is an Augusta area freelance writer, military spouse and mother of two. She has a masters degree in children’s literature from Kansas State University and has taught high school and college English.

This article appears in the February 2016 issue of Augusta Family Magazine.
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