Wednesday 17 June 2015

Can books help your child develop a better sense of empathic concern or compassion? A ReadItDaddy Editorial.

"Just Because" by Rebecca Elliott - Helping children develop a sense of empathic concern and compassion with a touching story of sibling love.

Something has been rattling around in my bonce for a long time and it's something that, as Charlotte gets older, both my wife and I see more evidence of. Charlotte's sense of compassion is quite touching and quite mature and unusual for a 7 year old too. A lot of it does stem from her deep sense of care for her mum - and the way that she is capable and level headed whenever my wife (who suffers from Epilepsy) has a particularly bad day with seizures and chronic fatigue. It's also in both my wife and I, so if behaviour like that can be passed on in your genes, I guess there's a case for that too.

We also know that school is a factor in the way Charlotte is developing due to the school's approach to mindfulness and caring for others, and last but by no means least it's definitely something that Charlotte would pick up as a result of attending her local Brownie troop.

But I'd wondered whether books also were a factor too. Can books really help your child develop a better sense of compassion or empathic concern for your fellow humans (as well as all the other species we share this mudball with?)

We've read so many books that readily demonstrate storylines showing one character's compassion and caring for another. I'm not just talking about the standard "This is why friendships are brilliant" type stuff (we see an awful lot of those and some of them don't really convey much of a message beyond the glaringly obvious morality tale type stuff), but books that clearly show a character's willingness to put their own needs to one side in order to help another character - they're in another class entirely.

We've used Rebecca Elliott's brilliant "Just Because" (and also her fabulous book "Sometimes") as our header example of a children's book that ably demonstrates this (through Toby's relationship and caring for his sister Clemmie) but in some stories it extends beyond sibling and family ties to show that you don't have to be related to someone in order to show empathic concern or compassion. Children pick up on this, and in Charlotte's case, we sometimes hear her talking about books where it's obvious that she's mapped out those elements of a story, and likes / relates to that sort of behaviour.

Take a look at "Lemur Dreamer" by Courtney Dicmas. A sleepy Lemur has a wonderful set of friends who really care about the poor soul, and work furiously to protect their friend as he sleepwalks (quite often into dangerous situations). Children can demonstrably see a group of friends banding together to help, even though in the story the Lemur's initial behaviour adversely impacts the friends' lives.

This marked it out as something a little more than just a 'friendship' book, and it's also an entertaining story helping it stick in the mind when little ones start to get to an age when they can assess their own behavioural responses to others with a more objective mind.

We also liked "Pom Pom Gets the Grumps" by Sophy Henn. Again this is a story that perfectly encapsulates feelings we've already described above, where someone who (to be fair) is a grumpy sour puss having friends who really pitch in and show that friendships can outlast the odd grumpy day.

I started to think about the typical 'friendship' book, looking for examples where you could flip this type of story on its head - so you had an individual going above and beyond the usual friendship stuff to demonstrate empathic concern and compassion and it was great to find countless examples in children's literature. "Herman's Letter" by Tom Percival is a great example where one person goes way beyond the call of duty to make sure their friend knows they'll do almost anything for them because they're so special and cherished.

So back to the original question. Can children start to pick up on empathic concern and compassion from books? You'd really hope so, and if it's making a contribution to our own efforts to ensure Charlotte doesn't grow up putting herself first in every situation in life, all the better.