During the pandemic years, children have had to adjust to frequent changes at home, at school or daycare, and among friends and family. Like the adults in their lives, they’ve experienced a tangle of negative emotions: sad, lonely, fearful, anxious, disappointed. Children, unlike adults, just aren’t equipped to understand this chaotic mix of circumstances and feelings.
Books can be an ideal tool to help young children identify and express their feelings. When readers identify with a character, especially on an emotional level, they see that others also are experiencing and coping with personal struggles, just as they are.
Picture books are especially engaging and helpful for young readers, with images and words working together to clarify powerful emotions. That’s one of the reasons I wrote two children’s picture books: “Happy Harper Thursdays: A Grandmother’s Love for Her Granddaughter During the Coronavirus” and “The Return of Happy Harper Thursdays: The Guiding Light of a Grandmother’s Love.” These two brightly illustrated picture books help little people understand their big emotions. They attempt to explain to young children, simply and clearly, why we haven’t always been able to be with our loved ones during the pandemic.
For children, reading works much like role-playing, allowing them can see the world through someone else’s eyes. Through reading, young people gain new perspectives. They see examples of how to negotiate friendships, handle conflicts during play, and generally manage their feelings. In addition, books build empathy in children. While the capacity to empathize is hardwired into the human brain, the skills of acting on empathy need to be taught, nurtured, and practiced over time.
Strategies for reading with children
Looking at images and reading words on the printed page aren’t sufficient to help children process emotions and develop empathy. When reading with children, keep in mind these strategies:
Pick the right book: To help children learn to identify and manage their feelings, choose texts that explore typical life scenarios. Familiarity helps them understand more concretely what they or their peers might be experiencing.
Identify a character’s feelings: Teach children the vocabulary for their emotions. When reading a story, ask about a character’s emotions in simple terms. For example: “Why do you think the wolf blew down the pigs’ houses? How do you think the pigs felt when the wolf blew down their houses? What do you think the pigs should do? What did we learn from the story about building a house?”
Take time to ponder: To help young readers put themselves into the character’s shoes, it’s important to pause periodically and reflect upon what has happened in the story. Researchers recommend some thought-provoking questions to help a child relate to the character’s emotions:
- How do you think the character feels right now?
- Why do you think he/she did what he/she just did?
- What would you do if you were the main character right now?
- Based on what we know about the character, do you think he/she will do what you would do? What might he or she do instead?
- What would make the character happy right now?
- What do you think will happen next?
How kids will benefit
Reading cultivates empathy, intimacy, even community-mindedness.
As adults help children answer these questions, each child brings his or her own feelings to the text. Children gain confidence in their own ability to control their environment when they’re able to predict an outcome of a story. Adults reading with children help them learn to discuss complex feelings – while, importantly, fostering greater intimacy and a stronger connection.
In general, readers with greater empathy and more awareness of their own emotions are likely to become more compassionate, more community-minded people. Eventually, when readers become parents themselves, they’ll use these reading techniques to raise empathetic, self-aware children of their own.
About the author:
Chicago-based writer Fern Schumer Chapman has written several award-winning books. Her most recent, “Brothers, Sisters, Strangers: Sibling Estrangement and the Road to Reconciliation,” came out in April 2021. Her memoir, “Motherland,” is a popular choice for book clubs. Two of her other books, “Is It Night or Day?” and “Like Finding My Twin,” are used in middle-school classrooms. Recently, she published two picture books, “Happy Harper Thursdays” and “The Return of Happy Harper Thursdays.”