“Soothment” – reading, empathy, and the beginning of the end

n-and-cLast night we stood in front of N’s sagging bookshelves looking for something good to read.

Black Beauty?” I suggested.

“No. It’ll be too sad.”

The Railway Children?”

“Mmm. No.”

“I know: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer! Funny! Or here — The Swiss Family Robinson!”

“Mmm. No.”

“It says it’s happy! Listen: ‘The Swiss Family Robinson is a story of the happy discovery of the wonders of natural history by a family shipwrecked on a desert island, who remain united through all the adversities that they encounter.’ Wait — it says it’s joyful too! A joyful classic!”

“No. Something else.”

Finally she pulled an Ivy and Bean from her shelf, which we’ve been reading since the picture book phase I wrote about last week. I like the Ivy and Bean books, but I’ve been craving a bigger story since before Christmas (though yes, I do read from my own library too!).

“Let’s pick something else,” I suggested. “Don’t you want to read a big, juicy novel?”

And then came the blow: “Mom, it’s just that I like to read those kinds of books by myself now.”

I smiled to hide the sting, but privately I was thinking about all our years of reading What are you afraid of?together, and — at least in retrospect — how quickly they have flown by. It was another of those bicycle moments. You run and you run alongside your child (in our case for years!), and suddenly she is ready to go alone, and before either of you has realized it, she is flying away from you, and it’s you who becomes the speck in her distance when she finally looks back.

But this is wonderful, I thought as I closed her door last night. In this one respect, I know I have done my job well. N is a reader, and I suspect she will remain so. She has moved up through all the phases of reading, recognizing first the pictures, then the letters as pictures, then the letters as words, then the words as sentences, then the sentences as information. And with this skill she can unlock many mysteries. Wherever she wants to go, books will take her there, and in that regard I hope she will become a world traveler.

I’ve read that reading fiction increases empathy too–I suppose because one gets caught up in a character and looks at the story’s situation through that character’s eyes. In a sense you have to become someone else. I used to get N to eat by pretending the morsel on her plate was sad because she’d eaten other morsels but not “him.” As I put on my warbly Tiny Carrot voice — “Please eat me so I can be with my friends. I am so lonely!” — I’d sometimes worry I’d gone too far when I saw her face fill with pity, eyebrows working, mouth opening wide for the poor bit of food that had felt so abandoned.

I also recall walking through Value Village with N and coming upon a bedraggled stuffed dog lying in an aisle, with a $1.99 tag pierced into his neck. We both stopped and looked down at him, and he stared up at us with large blue eyes, felt tongue lolling. We had to take him home, and of course he’s with us still.

Years later, we sometimes sit in her room and go through the stuffed animals with the aim of getting rid of some, but we make the mistake of holding them up one by one and looking at their faces, and for a quiet moment they look back at us, waiting for our decision. Our cull is far from thorough every time.

There are the real creatures too — the baby squirrel who lost his mother and cried for help in our backyard; the kindergarten friend who wouldn’t speak but found a loyal friend in N, who spoke enough for both of them. We used to walk home together at lunchtime, the wordless girl and her wordless mother just ahead, and N and I trailing behind, calling out a cheerful goodbye when we reached our house.



Recently when her grandmother was sick, N hung a reversible sign on her doorknob, and ran a full series of checkups. She made “emergency pain notes” on her own medical stationery with a logo that read “your health matters to us.” She asked careful, thoughtful questions about where the pain was and what the patient would be willing to take for “soothment.” And would the patient like one hairdo per day, or two?

Whether this ability to understand another’s emotions comes because of reading, I’m not sure. I like to think that’s part of it. But I wonder too what makes books so special? Do movies increase empathy? Does television? There are lots of awful television shows for kids, but there’s great stuff too. In fact, the more I think about it, I suspect a show like Nana Lan, which N loved as a little girl, did indeed boost  her ability to empathize. There are lots of books that have done zero in that regard. So perhaps it’s not so much the medium, but the value of the story it contains, and the extent to which the viewer can embrace that story.

In any case, I hope this is not the end of our reading together, but it is almost certainly the beginning of the end. Which is as it should be.Blog of green gables?


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24 responses to ““Soothment” – reading, empathy, and the beginning of the end

  1. Beautiful. And sad, even though you are being so brave. I’m welling up over here!

  2. kristendenhartog

    Selfishly I wanted to ask her, “What about my blog?”

    • Haha! Perhaps the blog, like your reading relationship, can evolve too.

      A beautiful post. I’d like to say, don’t worry. I still love to be read to, and so does my husband. He can read the books himself too but he says he remembers better when he’s listening. It’s a different kind of reading. And I’ve read him mostly YA and children’s! We started with Stuart McLean’s stories, but then I read him The Halloween Tree, and after that it was the Eragon series and, his favourite, Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, and so on. I know that feeling of closeness you have, and I’m devastated when he says naw to a suggestion or to a reading session.

      A couple of weekends ago, my in-laws visited and we got to talking about the TV show Once Upon a Time (which I love). They don’t. We talked about Hansel and Gretel, and I said, “Fairy tales are so amazing. You should know the real story! Should I read it to you now?” To my great surprise, they said yes, and I delightedly cracked open my leatherbound Grimm collection.

      Sometimes our listeners and reading companions feel independent and want a private reading experience. But they come back now and again, even as adults, with these beautiful words, “Read me a story?” — or, simply, “Yes, please.”

      • kristendenhartog

        How lovely that you read not just to your hubby, but to your in-laws too! I’m intrigued by the idea that your husband remembers stories better when listening than when reading. For me it’s the other way. I love to be read to, but it sometimes hard for me to follow the words when someone else is speaking them.

  3. What a beautiful post, and so relevant to me right now with a little girl who is reading her way through so much so quickly, often without me but thankfully, not always. Thank you for sharing.

  4. penny

    Beautiful Post. What a poignant reminder of how bittersweet it is to experience the milestones of your child. They are not even aware, and we feel it so acutely. So much to look forward to, but also so much to remember.

  5. What a lovely post. No one ever read to me (that I remember and I have a pretty good memory) which is suprising because my mother read every day of her life. I grew up to be a writer but I know I would read more fiction now if I had been read to as a child. I read mysteries voraciously but not much other fiction. Having said that the first two books I read and loved as a child I still have and have never forgotten – The Secret Garden and The Children Who Lived in a Barn. I read them on my own but at least someone bought them for me. You have done a great job with your child. Pat yourself on the back.

    • kristendenhartog

      Thanks for this, Susan. I must look up The Children Who Lived in a Barn. I don’t know that one, but The Secret Garden we read and loved twice!

      • It is by Eleanor Graham and it took decades for me to find because I thought it was Five Children in a Barn. I highly identified with the lead character for reasons best left for now but it is a beautiful book. Come to think of it, I indentified with the girl in The Secret Garden too. Sure a therapist could have a field day with those thoughts! But that what reading in childhood is about, that something resonates inside us even if we do not understand what it is at that age. There is a lovely press out of England, Persephone Books, that has undertaken to re-publish mid-twentieth century books written by (mostly) women that they feel are neglected and need to be in print again for which I give them high praise. That is where I found it.

      • kristendenhartog

        That’s an excellent mission (Persephone Books). Glad to know about it!

  6. Marilyn

    Oh, dear, the beginning of the end! But you have accomplished what every parent sets out to do as far as reading is concerned. You’ve made N into a reader and that’s something that will never end. When you no longer read together you can still read the same books and discuss them.
    I had a good chuckle about the empathetic N nursing her grandma. I hope she was able to find a good soothment.

    • kristendenhartog

      Yes, very funny re soothment! And re reading the same books and discussing afterward, remember when H read To Kill a Mockingbird with C, as part of C’s school work? What a great idea. Wonder if that assignment is a regular part of the curriculum?

  7. jim

    We’ve been away from your posts for a while now and have just lapped up the latest! Wonderful and sad but also filled with promise. It makes us realize once again how precious life is and how much we should appreciate getting another day of it. Sometimes we, in our rush to live, forget that.

    Reading all the comments was another treat! No doubt should N ever be in your position she will pass on this love of reading.

  8. Hi Kristen –
    You raise a lot of interesting questions here – the development of empathy through reading is something I’ve been preoccupied with myself lately and have written about a little on my blog. I think that you are right about films and shows sometimes having a similar effect but I think there is something about the primacy of the connection between reader and a character in a book that is different. If we look back on our own childhood reading and reviewing it seems to be that the points of strongest identification are more likely to be literary. In the words of C.S. Lewis “We read to know we are not alone.”
    I sympathize with the feeling that you’re coming to the end of a phase of reading together – my boys are now 12 and 18. The younger one will often read to us now, though, which is a very particular pleasure. I find with both sons that engaging in parallel reading has its own benefits. Younger son and I have read through Adrian Mole and Gideon Defoe’s Pirate books this way while elder son and I enjoy Scottish crime novels by Ian Rankin and Denise Mina.
    Lovely post. I am particularly enamoured of the word soothment.

    • kristendenhartog

      That’s a lovely Lewis quote, Sarah, thank you. And how great to hear this anecdote about your sons — it’s soothment for me!

  9. Lenny

    Our youngest E and I only yesterday determined we would begin our own book club – he has read on his own for a few years now but there is still value I think, and some necessity as far as school is concerned,to understand and learn how to express what he reads. He is a tad on the spare side when it comes to putting thoughts to paper. We shall see how it goes.

    As for empathy, reading, film all those things no doubt reinforce the empathy they experience first hand through real people, especially at home. A $1.99 stuffed dog’s loneliness is all the proof one needs to know it exists in abundance in your house!

  10. Oh! It never occurred to me before this post, Kristen. This is a rite of passage I must have bestowed upon my mother when I fell in love with reading on my own. It began with phonetics – words, sentences, paragraphs. She helped me through all of that and once I had a firm grasp on it, I walked away from her with my first ‘real’ book clutched to my chest.

  11. kristendenhartog

    Yes, reading together is a great thing. But reading alone — really getting lost in a book by yourself — is something quite different. I think that’s what N’s discovering now.

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