The beginning of empathy?

My daughter, who is two-and-a-half, is developing a habit of hugging books.  When we’re reading a story and someone gets hurt, or might be scared, or sad, she embraces the book for a long moment.  When Madeline gets her appendix taken out, or when Sal loses her tooth (One Morning in Maine) and makes a bitter face “almost like crying,” my daughter leans in to hug.  She does this with her parents, too, when we stub toes or drop things, or are not feeling well.  In trying to raise a child who cares about other people, we’ve talked a lot about considering others’ feelings, reminding her that it hurts the cat when she yanks his tail.

Tonight, I was reading Harold and The Purple Crayon at bedtime.

“He was tired and he felt he ought to be getting to bed.  He hoped he could see his bedroom window from the top of the mountain.  But as he looked down over the other side he slipped–And there wasn’t any other side of the mountain.  He was falling, into thin air.”

Harold is shown upside down, with his purple crayon, simply falling.  My daughter leaned in to hug Harold, and then held and comforted him (the book) for a long time.  She said, “I’m going to hold Hamold” (as she calls Harold).

The wise people who write about child development tend to discount these early displays of empathy, and certainly my child does her share of throwing her dolls to the floor so that they cry, so that she can comfort them.  (I encourage her not to throw them to the floor–“It’s better if they don’t cry in the first place, right?” but that’s not the point.  She needs them to cry so that she can comfort them.)  It is heart-warming to see her hugging a book, especially when the child protagonist is in peril, or pain, but I don’t think my daughter is unusual in this way.

I read an article recently (I wish I could remember where!) about a book that was claiming there is too much fiction in K-12 curriculum, and that children need to learn how to read nonfiction, that it helps them learn about the real world more than fiction does.  Admittedly taken out of context, this notion really bothers me.  Yes, children need to learn to read all kinds of things, and it’s crucial that they learn the nuances and distinctions between fiction and nonfiction.  But how can I say that fiction doesn’t teach children about life in the “real” world?  Even putting “issue” books aside (in my generation, there was Judy Blume) it’s not fair to partition fiction out of what is real in the world.

We learn the world from stories, and through stories.

p.s. There is truth and fiction everywhere.

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3 responses to “The beginning of empathy?

  1. Wonderful Rebecca! Beautifully written, I love the visual of hugging a book, what could be better? :) Too much fiction in K-12? Not nearly enough!!

  2. In some ways, all fiction is true–otherwise, it wouldn’t be interesting enough to hold our attention.

  3. Thanks, Jaime. I keep thinking about book-hugging as some parallel to tree-hugging… need to ponder and then blog about that. :) And I need to find that source! And Dale, I agree.

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