When You Read To Me, You Teach Me Empathy
” There is Magic in learning to use the mind to awaken our lives.” – Daniel J. Siegel, MD
“A peaceful, happy child is the first step toward a peaceful, happy world… Children are a small part of our now but one hundred percent of our future.” – Goldie Hawn, MindUp
Recently, I was picking up my order of Book Fairy book stickers at Port City Graphics, when I noticed a display of beautiful wooden disks that were laser printed with the word HOPE. I knew I really needed one. When I tried to purchase one, the owner and friend gifted one to me. My friend literally gave me the gift of HOPE. Now,with this article, I get to give you that gift too. I’ve discovered what I believe to be the best hope for our children and our families to recover from this year of pandemic adversity.
By the time this article is in print, children and families worldwide will have endured a full year of pandemic trauma and loss. Due to the pandemic, all of our children now have ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences). I recently read that, “According to UNICEF, the children of the United States are the second least happy children in the world…” I was as shocked to learn this as I was, nearly five years ago, to read that “2/3 of the 15.5 million children living in poverty in the US do not own even one book.”
My response to that shocking statistic was to create the Book Fairy Pantry Project. I knew I couldn’t personally end poverty, but I knew I could (with help) begin to change that literacy statistic by getting donated, gently-used, free books into the hands of children without books. I also know I cannot do anything about a pandemic. However, I have recently learned of a program that has the power to empower all parents and teachers to buffer the effects of the trauma, stresses and losses of this pandemic, and prevent it from permanently damaging our children and our families. Three million children have already benefited from this program! It’s called MindUp.
In response to the 9/11 tragedy, actress and mother, Goldie Hawn, felt compelled to do something to help children cope with the traumatic events of that day. In 2003, she founded the Hawn Foundation, and with the help of neuroscientists, positive psychologists, doctors, teachers and parents, she created the MindUp program to empower parents and teachers to help children become “resilient, focused, mindful learners… [who can] successfully cope with the stresses they face in school, at home and in their communities.”
MindUp is a program of social emotional learning with a set of strategies that can be incorporated into the home and/or school curriculum to teach children and parents “how their minds work and how their thoughts and feelings affect their behavior.” By learning simple techniques like mindful breathing, focusing on feelings of gratitude, kindness and optimism, we can literally change the structure of our brains “at whatever age we are just by intentionally focusing our attention.”
Given all that we have endured this year, discovering that there is a program proven to build resilience, that is ready, available and easily accessible to schools and families is cause for great hope. With this, we can learn to teach children, not only how to recover, but to thrive, through strengthening their emotional resilience.
The foundation of emotional literacy is learning empathy. Many people use the words sympathy and empathy interchangeably, as if they mean the same thing; they don’t. The best definition of empathy I’ve ever heard is, “your pain in my heart.” Empathy is feeling with you. Sympathy is feeling for you. Emotional Literacy, our ability to recognize and identify our own feelings, and to “read” and empathize with the feelings of others is just as important as our ability to read the written word.
How poetic is it that “emotional” literacy is strengthened through reading stories that teach children about empathy? The more opportunities we can give children to recognize their own feelings in the feelings of other beings, the more their empathy will grow. Our children are depending on us to teach them how to use their brains to make their world good again. It is my great wish that everyone who reads this call to action will do their part to make MindUp available to as many children as possible, wherever they are schooling. It is the antidote to ACEs that our children need to heal and thrive.