Tag Archives: empathy

“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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gimme, gimme

Frog_and_toad_coverLately I’ve been thinking a lot about giving. Much of it is child related — trying to foster in our daughter what we call her “generous spirit” — but what we dole out as lessons often seems to float back to me on an adult level as well (the way passages in Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books do, but that’s a subject for a future post).

Our daughter loves to give. She doesn’t always love to share — but full-on giving brings her enormous pleasure. And usually it’s all her idea. She might give a drawing, or a plastic drumstick, or a plate of cookies, or a stuffed animal from her vast collection. And the anticipation of handing the thing over is  almost more than she can stand. She skips along ahead of me, clutching the gift and beaming.

I was telling a friend about this (a wonderful writer who will remain unnamed here, so I don’t give any secrets away), and he confessed to me that sometimes he feels compelled to give certain people something that has enormous value for him. It may have little value for the recipient — and he never tells them, “Do you know how much this means to me?” He just wants them — or maybe needs them — to have it.

This sense of spontaneity impresses me. We give, and then a rush comes from giving — which is different from giving in order to get the rush. I remember once telling my daughter that generosity would make her feel fantastic inside — and then immediately thinking that was off, somehow, and twisted, the way it seems twisted to believe in god so that you get into heaven. There are so many things in life that we measure based on what we will get out of them.

The other day I was entering the subway, and an old woman just inside the turnstile offered me a green scarf, with the hope of receiving some change in return. She had a dirty zip-lock bag in the other hand, full of perfume samples, and I noticed as I hurried by that she was wearing what looked like an old pilot’s uniform — a dark jacket with gold bits at the lapels. I mumbled my apology and went past, but when I got down to the platform I had this awful feeling. I stood there for a few minutes, and watched more people rushing down the stairs — none of them had the scarf in their hands. And though I heard the train approaching, I found myself climbing the stairs again, and digging in my purse for some change.

I had only $1.35, so I said to the woman as I handed it over, “Don’t worry, keep the scarf, I just want you to have this.” She was obviously grateful for the change, but she pushed the scarf toward me. “Hand-made, hand-made,” she kept repeating, patting it and putting it in my hands. I tried insisting, but it quickly became awkward, and I realized how important it was for her to give it to me — to have something to offer. (And the thing is, I am a scarf person, and a person who loves green.)

A different scarf -- one of many

A different greenish scarf -- one of many

So off I went, on a hot, humid day, with “my” scarf. Another train came, and I got on, and instead of using the precious time alone the way I usually would (to read or make notes), I immediately started chewing over what I would do with the scarf — I could leave it on the train for someone else to find, and they might need a scarf, or maybe have a desire to sell it, and in that way the spirit of generosity would flourish. Or would it? What if the pilot lady came upon it again, lying there abandoned. Or what if someone saw me leave it there as I disembarked, and shouted after me, “Wait, you forgot your scarf!” And beyond all that — was it right to leave behind this thing that someone had so needed me to receive?

But what if she’d stolen the scarf, and the person she’d taken it from saw me with it? Where did she get her pilot’s jacket, and all those perfume samples, and so on — all of which I realized were a story-lover’s mind taking over the event, and shaping it into something bigger. I tried to stop thinking about what had really been a tiny, forgettable moment, and pulled out my notebook and started jotting things down. But the scarf was there beneath it, defining the space.

Yes, I took it home, and I suppose I will keep it. It’s green, after all.

There is so much emphasis on giving, but what about receiving? The taker, as well as the giver, has a role to play. How often do we find ourselves declining gracious gestures, simple compliments, thoughtful gifts, rides home, help when we’re struggling — why does it feel so awkward to accept and say thank you? I suppose there is generosity in receiving too — and a level of empathy in being able to do either well.


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