Reading, the Gateway to Empathy

By Gina Prosch
Gina Prosch
Gina Prosch
June 28, 2021 Updated: July 7, 2021

“It’s all so sad,” said Emma, reflecting on the death of Hector as seen through the eyes of his grieving parents. “Especially because last week during class, I was happy about Achilles getting his revenge. We were excited as he put his armor on and went out to fight with Hector. We’ve been waiting for this moment ever since Hector killed Patroclus. But now, I hate it.”

Welcome to my homeschool literature class where we’re diving deep into the “Iliad.”

The narrative’s changing point of view has Emma and her classmates on a bit of an emotional roller coaster. Where once they cheered Achilles on as he prepared for battle, now the kids are face-to-face with the high price of war. They’ve seen the grief of Hector’s parents, who watched as their son was cut down on the battlefield in front of them.

Another scene shift and now they see Hector’s wife, Andromache, weaving at her loom, getting a hot bath ready for Hector, oblivious to the fact her husband has just been killed. “I think Homer’s a stinker,” said Lauren. “He makes us want Achilles to succeed with his revenge, but as soon as it happens, I’m sad for Hector’s wife and family. Especially since the whole time he’s describing Andromache, we know what’s happened, so we’re here waiting for the other shoe to drop for her. Reading that was awful.”

“I wish life could be more fair,” said Emma.

More than watching movies or television shows, more than listening to audiobooks or playing games, reading serves as a magic doorway to empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of other people. Unfortunately in today’s world, feeling empathy for others is quickly becoming something of a lost art. But it doesn’t have to be. Particularly when you start early. Award-winning children’s book creator Julia Cook, author of nearly 100 books for children, including “The Judgmental Flower” and the forthcoming “Will You Be the I in KIND?,” says, “You cannot teach empathy to children, you can only offer them experiences that allow them to develop it from within. Reading is a great way to do that!”

As a longtime classroom teacher, I agree. I regularly remind my students that none of us has the time to meet all the people, live through all the situations, visit all the places, and make all the mistakes, so reading is our next best option. Be they fiction or nonfiction, poetry or prose or plays; books and the characters who live in their pages help readers view the world firsthand from someone else’s perspective. A character’s point of view becomes the lens through which readers see the action and interactions of the story. Readers sneak inside someone else’s head and share that person’s emotions. As readers, we have the opportunity to experience more of the world than we ever could on our own.

As a former school counselor, Cook quickly realized that in order to help children, she needed to enter their view of the world, to empathize with them as they tried to figure out how the world worked. Reading books makes it easier for children to understand emotions and people’s reactions to extreme situations when they aren’t immediately involved in those situations. Plus, reading (or being read to) gives kids the opportunity to see the world from a point of view other than their own.

Maybe that new perspective comes from Hank the Cowdog’s point of view, maybe it comes from Big Dog and Little Dog, maybe from a classic such as Lassie or Old Yeller. The important thing is for children to learn that the world doesn’t look the same to everyone. Different people experience things in different ways. Little Dog’s encounter with a too-long bed is different than Big Dog’s encounter with a too-short bed.

As an only child, I never longed for siblings of my own, but I was curious about how having a brother or sister worked. That curiosity was satisfied by Charlie and Sally Brown and Lucy and Linus Van Pelt as I read about their sibling antics in the Peanuts comic strips. As I grew older, I joined the Ingalls family in the Little House books and later, the Bennet family of “Pride and Prejudice.” I gained an understanding of how tumultuous and intense the relationship between siblings can be.

Before I experienced the death of a loved one in real life, I was as powerless as Meg, Jo, and Amy to save dear, sweet Beth March in Little Women. While the March family grieved their loss, I sobbed along in my bedroom, because as a reader, I had lost someone important to me too.

I began to understand what grief felt like. I also learned how much it could hurt to be told “Ah, what’s the big deal, it’s only a book; it’s not like anybody actually died.” And by extension, I realized I didn’t want to be the one to say, “Ah, what’s the big deal, it’s ‘just’ a —” to someone else who experienced a loss. That’s empathy.

That’s what Atticus Finch is talking about when he tells Scout (and everyone who reads “To Kill a Mockingbird”) “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Atticus doesn’t add a caveat of “but only walk around in the skin of people you like or people who are like you.” It’s important to extend empathy to everyone. Later in the novel, Atticus once again reminds Scout, “You never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.”

What if that became a summertime goal? It’s as easy as searching out a book that sounds interesting. Then just turn the page, slip into someone else’s shoes, and open the gateway to empathy.

Gina Prosch is a writer, home educator, life coach, and parent located in mid-Missouri. She is the author of “This Day’s Joy” and “Finding This Day’s Joy,” both of which are available at Amazon. Find her online at GinaProsch.com or TheHomeschoolWay.com. She also co-hosts The OnlySchoolers Podcast (OnlySchoolers.com). 
This article was published in American Essence magazine.
Gina Prosch
Gina Prosch