Category Archives: Empathy

The Importance of Reading Stories to Your Child During the Pandemic

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Donna Burke Esgro

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Reading, thoughtful reading, is more important than ever for children during this time of social distancing and on-line learning.

Deep reading is the giving up of oneself to a story, falling into the character’s lives, sharing their hopes, fears, successes, and failures. Whether the characters are wizards, orphans, bullies, hedgehogs, or heroes, we experience their trials as universal.

Early childhood experts and social scientists agree that reading fiction (from picture books to classic novels) helps build Theory of Mind. TOM is the ability to understand the desires, intents, and beliefs of another. To be able to identify with another is a key cognitive skill that begins developing early in life.

Humans, as the current state of distancing has brought into sharp focus, are social beings. Social beings who, for the sake of themselves and others, are living now in a state of modified distancing for the near distant future. But just because we are physically in a bubble, our minds, hearts, and souls do not have to be.

As the brain reads it becomes very active. It literally sparks! Neurobiologists have discovered that the same regions of the brain are stimulated by reading about something as they are by experiencing it.  While reading, hundreds of neural connections are made that include recognition, understanding, awareness, and acceptance of different points of view. New thoughts and feelings arise as we read that nurture our ability to feel empathy.

Reading, because it has the power to shift perspective and encourage one to think outside normal bounds, has the power to change society. In this binary time, when there is a tendency to believe that one is on one side or another, reading opens minds and develops the art of listening.

As we are well aware, most of the healing needed in our society will not be solved by a new vaccine. By reading often to our children and, as they grow, encouraging them to read, we can, in our own homes, be part of a process of building the necessary compassion for all people that is vital to our future.

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The Palace of Discovery

IMG_6968Days of Discovery – Monterey Bay Aquarium

“The Palace of Knowledge is different than the Palace of Discovery.” Mary Oliver

As students go back to school, and even at very young ages experience the mounting pressure of being judged on their “knowledge” it is important for both parents and teachers to think about what knowledge truly is, and whether or not it can be tested, bell curved, and graded. Is knowledge acquiring a perfect score of 100%? If one’s intellect can be confirmed as superior by A grades, by being able to re-state exactly what has been told to us, students might as well be on a conveyor belt that boxes up perfectly educated children and spits out discards, those who just won’t fit in that box, misfits whose report cards generally fall into the standard deviant, below average range.

I recently had the experience of watching a dedicated team of staff divers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Days of Discovery spend hours in the water with several groups of children… Children whose disabilities and special needs ranged in varying degrees of severity, those with cognitive impairments such as Down Syndrome and autism, others with physical restraints, muscular dystrophy, spina bifida, cerebral palsy…
These children, some of whom are paralyzed and others whose own minds keep them bound, were, for a short time released… floating freely in the bounty of the Aquarium’s Tide Pool, discovering the startling cool water, the clamminess of kelp, and the delicate whorl of the tidal snail.

Watching their alert faces and expressions of joy there is no doubt that they were learning, but were we to test them on their experience how would they fare? Can a child’s mind be evaluated on the intricate neural connections that are made by the scent of the sea, the spikiness of a sea star, or the ability to trust a smiling stranger in a scuba mask? Can what the heart discovers be graded? I would not want to be the one who has to decide such a complex and intimate attainment.
Regardless of age and regardless of subject, the more that we can impart the glory and the wonder of the world to students, the more they will learn. Learning is not static. Information continuously flows from one synapse to another creating patterns of recognition and understanding that build knowledge. It cannot be forced or coerced into being. It cannot be accurately labeled as above or below average.

What can educators learn from the children that participated in the Days of Discovery program? That all children have special needs, wants that are so well hidden we often can’t recognize them. Champion the child that doesn’t fit into a standardized mold. Trust that knowledge is being imparted in different ways to each child and, knowing this, to offer a variety of ways to learn.

Brilliance is often overlooked because it is defined by creativity which cannot truly be measured. Be wary of putting to much emphasis on testing, for children will universally shut down if they are shamed by poor grades. I witnessed a child at my local library the week that school began put her head down and cry twice within a half hour over homework, her mother becoming increasingly impatient and irritated with her as she erased her answers again and again. Ask yourself what will be learned from this experience.

There has to be a better way to teach in which students are seen as explorers, encouraged to float freely in this odd and beautiful world – where knowledge is not judged by quarterly report cards, but in the soul, a sacred and individual palace of discovery.

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young scientistMichael Esgro 1991 – Volunteer D.O.D. Scuba Diver – Lifetime Explorer

 

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The Symbiosis of Writer & Illustrator

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One of the earliest books ever read to me was Honey Bear by Dixie Wilson (1923), illustrated by Maginel Wright Barney. As a very young child I was mesmerized, both with the rhyming story and the exquisite illustrations-the dusky velvet sky, the deep lavender shadows, Honey Bear in his rumpled rose colored jacket…

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Once upon a summer in the hills by the river

Was a deep green forest where the wild things grew

There were caves as dark as midnight

There were tangled trees and thickets

And a thousand little places where the sky looked through

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Later, as an adult, I read Algonquin Publishing’s introduction to their series of books for children:

“The makers of Sunny Books believe that books for children should be not only entertaining, but conform to the highest ideals of beauty in book-making, so that the fortunate child who owns them will develop good taste in reading and in art.”

Fortunate, indeed, I was, to fall so completely and sweetly in star dusted love with literature long before I could read.

When choosing first books for your child, be aware of the quality of both writer and illustrator. There is deeper enchantment in the reading of a story when both artists work in harmony with respect and passion for their material.

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The Mad Hatter: “Have I gone mad?”

Alice: “I’m afraid so. You’re entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are.”

Alice in Wonderland has been illustrated by many artists over the years. But, the original black and white John Tenniel drawings reflect best the oddness and dreaminess of Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece. Carroll was a visual artist as well as a writer and knew the importance of the illustrator’s contribution to the integrity of the story. He could have chosen among dozens of children’s book illustrators adept at depicting whimsical fairylands. Instead he chose the acerbic Tenniel, known for his wicked sense of humor and grotesque political cartooning. The choice is intriguing and telling.

My mother often told me the story about how, when she was a little girl, she would sneak down into her grandfather’s library after everyone was asleep and read. Late at night, in the shadows of the dark room, she was both spellbound by Alice’s adventures and terrified by Tenniel’s drawings. A fact that, I’m sure, both gentlemen would have appreciated.

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Piglet: “How do you spell ‘love’?”

Pooh: “You don’t spell it…you feel it.”

In a similar close relationship, A.A.Milne worked with Ernest H. Shepherd to create the charming Winnie the Pooh books. Together they capture the elusive innocence of a young child’s long golden days at play…the simple drawings a metaphor for the zen like simplicity of the characters. Disney’s much commercialized renditions, with their artificial cuteness that have turned Pooh from a humble sage to a bumbling clown, are loud, garish, and awkward when compared to the delicate and sensitive drawings of the original illustrator.

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Charlotte’s Web would still be a classic without E.B.White’s collaborator Garth Williams’ illustrations, but has anyone else ever drawn Wilbur, Charlotte, Fern, or the well meaning Mr. & Mrs. Arable with greater humor, compassion, gentleness, and love? This is a difficult book emotionally as its principal theme is suffering and death. Yet Charlotte’s story shimmers with hope. Williams’ tender black and white illustrations attend to the sacredness with which the author sees life and death.

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But Charlotte,” said Wilbur, “I’m not terrific.”

“That doesn’t make a particle of difference,” replied Charlotte. “Not a particle. People believe almost anything they see in print. Does anybody here know how to spell ‘terrific’?”

In cases in which a wonderful writer is also an accomplished illustrator, such as the works of Maurice Sendak, Rudyard Kipling, or William Blake, the reader is twice blessed with this deeper plunge into the original story creator’s mind. The fantastical fracas of Sendak, the exotica of Kipling, and the metaphysicality of Blake are omnipresent; as much in each brushstroke as in each word.

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“It is such a mysterious place, the land of tears.”

Although Antoine de Saint-Exupery never considered himself a visual artist, who can help but fall in love with the earnest Little Prince? The spareness of Exupery’s watercolors perfectly express the underlying message of his simple yet profoundly wise moral tale. And although I agree with The Little Prince that “What is essential is invisible to the eye”, it is often through, not only our reading and uses of imagination, but through our contemplative gaze that the invisible is revealed to us, clear, in all its squalor and glory.

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“Let The wild rumpus start!”

Maurice Sendak

Where the Wild Things Are

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The Way of the Reader

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“The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention.”
Thich Nhat Hanh

 

We live in a distracting world, but we fool ourselves when we think that, by doing more than one thing at a time we are being efficient. To be mindful, fully present in the moments of our lives, sounds deceptively simple, but, especially in this electronic age, is a decided discipline.

Reading, because it slows one down and encourages uses of imagination and focus, can be a gentle bridge to serenity.

As more and more children abandon reading for electronics, neuroimaging research shows that excessive screen time damages the developing brain by creating structural and functional changes in the regions that control emotional processing and cognitive control.

Of particular concern are findings that show damage to areas of the brain that equate physical attributes, such as facial expressions and body language, with emotion. This kind of damage, combined with the rapidly growing trend to spend more time socializing online than face to face, are a cocktail that severely impacts healthy social emotional development.

Conversely, reading develops brain connectivity, particularly in the left temporal cortex, the area of the brain associated with language and in the the sensorimotor region, the region of the brain responsible for something called embodied cognition, the ability to empathize.

Studies show that daily reading also increases connections between the brain’s hemispheres.  These neural pathways aide in the growth of a multitude of complex cognitive functions.

Undoubtedly, reading makes you smart. But does it also make you wise?

When we read to our children we encourage them to be still in body and mind, to listen attentively, and to focus intently. We offer a refuge from the jangle of the modern world and give them our full attention in a joyful and quiet way.

Reading develops Theory of Mind (ToM), the ability to understand that others have needs, desires, thoughts, and feelings that may be different than one’s own. These early stirrings of compassion are the foundation on which tolerance is built.
Reading, by its very nature, takes us outside ourselves. We become emotionally and intellectually sympathetic to characters who often are quite unlike us. This creates, in the child, an attitude of acceptance in which he or she is not threatened by foreign ideas…the seeds of a peaceful world.

Like a spiritual practice, reading offers a time to reflect, to ask questions and to examine one’s own life. It helps to foster what Albert Einstein called “holy curiosity.”
It makes us receptive, open to new concepts that inspire wonder, creativity and clarity…Deep reading allows us a singular meditation even in the midst of chaos and confusion.

In an often dark world, books illuminate.
Statistics show that, after their schooling is completed, almost half of the population of the United States never reads a book again.

So, if you ever find your children reading under the covers with a flashlight, quietly close the door and let them stay up late, their growing minds and hearts filled with vivid imagery and emotion as they follow their own singular bumpy twisty  roads to enlightenment.

 

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Be Inspired

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“Sometimes you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book.” John Green – The Fault in Our Stars

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The first story I remember being read to me was Honey Bear, by Dixie Wilson. The cadence of my mother’s voice, the enchantment of the illustrations…I couldn’t get enough of this little book…its Belle Epoque watercolors and rhyming verses like the bells of fairies. It took me to a place I never knew existed, a wondrous place. I was inspired, in the true sense of the word, filled with the spirit of literature.

Yet the feelings this story aroused were not simply of joy, but also, like all epiphanies, laced with longing. I traced my fingers over the delicate illustrations…the glowing cottage in the dark woods…the garden blooming with anthropomorphic flowers. I yearned to be there, a part of this loving family in their rapturous world.

The next book that hit me like a thunderbolt was E.B.White’s Charlotte’s Web. I was seven and longed with all my heart to be Fern…raising a baby pig, sitting silent in the barn privy to the conversations of animals…brave and tender Fern, who stood up to her father to save a helpless runt…reckless Fern, swinging out from the high loft of the barn on an old rope…circumspect Fern, who deeply listened before she spoke.

As an awkward ungainly preteen, the intelligence and independence of Nancy Drew seemed out of reach. Yet, I collected, read and re-read the dozens of blue cloth covered editions…her ordinary world so extraordinary to me, the wide tree lined streets, the stately homes with their generous porches, her stalwart convictions, her steadfast fight for justice while speeding around jauntily in her roadster without a blonde hair out of place.

I abandoned Nancy when I discovered Jane. Austen’s heroines were women I could imagine myself becoming…snubbing high society’s mores while strolling through formal English gardens…exposing hypocrisy while dancing in gilded ceilinged ballrooms.

The spiritual journey that books set me on is a never ending one..sometimes an Autobahn, sometimes a labyrinth, but mostly a twisting path that splits into many side roads…from Anna Karenina to Chekov, Turgenev, and my first true love, Dostoevsky…from a short story by Guy de Maupassant to Flaubert, Victor Hugo, and Proust. Today the books on my nightstand spill into stacks on the floor.

“So many books, so little time.” Frank Zappa

Although it is important to allow a child in a library or bookstore free reign to explore, it is also a good idea for the parent to be aware, just as he or she is aware of what foods are nutritious for the body, what books develop a child’s mind in healthy ways. Publishing for children is, after all, a business, one which is heavily researched and marketed to be delivered in bright shiny packaging designed to lure your child. So be aware, there are books that exploit rather than respect the child. The next time you take your child to pick out books, be involved in the process, find stories you loved as a child and point them out. Don’t forget to get a book for yourself, too. Your example, by way of the value you place on reading, is truly inspirational.

Of course, great children’s literature doesn’t have to be fiction, wonderful nonfiction books such as those by Gail Gibbons, Charlotte Zolotow, and Tana Hoban broaden the child’s knowledge of their immediate environment and answer many of the child’s unasked questions about how the world works.

Below is a link with a list of some outstanding children’s books:

http://www.readingrockets.org/article/75-authorsillustrators-everyone-shouldknow

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Books provide escape and comfort, but they also introduce the eternal questions, Why am I here?, ponder good vs. evil, and inspire us to wonder. My daughter, in her devotion to one of literature’s greatest female role models, Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, would not take off her ruby slippers for weeks, even to go to bed.

Whether you find your inspiration in Candy Fairies or Candide, whether you are reading from a rare first edition or a Kindle, books will always be a journey of egalitarian enlightenment. Follow your heart. The world today needs inspiration.

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So please, oh please, we beg, we pray

Go throw your TV set away

And in its place you can install

A lovely bookshelf on the wall

Roald Dahl – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

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What books have inspired you or your children? I’d love to hear from you.

Dr. Seuss – Zen Master

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“So please, when you step, step with care and great tact.

And Remember that Life’s a great balancing act.”

Oh! The Places You’ll Go!  –  Dr. Seuss

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Read across American month began this week with celebrations all over the world of Dr. Seuss’ birthday. Dr. Seuss would be delightful to read even if his books were just pure fun. But, there is more than silliness under that tall striped hat.

In The Uses of Imagination, Bruno Bettelheim states that “The child intuitively comprehends that although fairy tales are unreal, they are not untrue.”

This is the nexus of the genius of Dr. Seuss – His ability to create whimsical characters with wild hair, gangly bodies, and furry feet that touch our heart with their humanity.

Dr. Seuss, born Theodore Seuss Geisel (1904), was an artist, an intellectual and a seeker of knowledge. His very first children’s book  And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street (rejected twenty seven times by publishers) encourages using one’s imagination as a way to see the world in many different ways. He poses the question: What is reality?

But Mulberry Street didn’t sell well and his career as a children’s author seemed doomed when Life Magazine published an article in 1954 that exposed America’s children’s poor reading abilities. John Hersey (author of A Separate Peace) was quoted in the article as saying that children were illiterate because the primers in school were so boring and that authors like Dr. Seuss should be writing them.

Shortly after, Theo was approached by a major publishing house and asked to create a primer using 220 vocabulary words. The result , The Cat in the Hat, made him a household name. Fame brought lucrative offers by corporations eager to exploit his popularity. The ever unconventional Geisel turned down every proposal. Even when he was wooed with an unprecedented amount of money just to use a short unpublished verse on a Christmas billboard, Theo, showing unusual moral fortitude, refused, stating that he did not want to be associated with products for sale.

Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!

What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store

What if Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!

 

And what happened then? Well…in Whoville they say,

That the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day!

How The Grinch Stole Christmas – Dr. Seuss

Throughout his career as a children’s author, Dr. Seuss emphasized the importance of integrity, caring, tenderness, courage, and the interconnectivity of all creatures.

He held his head high and he threw out his chest

And he looked at the hunters as much as to say

“Shoot if you must but I won’t run away.”

I meant what I said and I said what I meant…

An elephant’s faithful One Hundred percent!

 Horton Hatches the Egg – Dr. Seuss

 

In The Sneetches he addresses the absurdity of prejudice, and in Oh! The Places You’ll Go! he gives us, in classic Seussesque style, both warning and encouragement:

You’ll come to a place where the streets are not marked. Some windows are lighted. But mostly there darked.

But Dr. Seuss reaches a lofty zenith in his darkly beautiful and profoundly environmentally aware treatise The Lorax, who “speaks for the trees.” The author’s brilliance lies in his ability to show us a believable glimpse of a tree’s soul – albeit one with a small orange furry body and a ridiculously large yellow moustache.

Teach your children to be on the look out for them.

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“When I let go of what I am I become what I might be. When I let go of what I have, I receive what I need.” Tao Te Ching

 

“If things start happening, don’t worry, don’t stew. Just go right along

and you’ll start happening, too.” Dr. Seuss

 

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Books vs. Bullies

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Walk as though you’ve been given one brown eye and one blue

Body & Soul…Charles Wright

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Bullying is a complicated socio-psychological issue. Bullies have always been among us in one form or another, but with the advent of the internet and the unprecedented prevalence of teenage texting it has reached pandemic, twenty four hour a day, proportions. The heart breaking stories of teen suicides brought on by severe cyber bullying have shocked and wounded us all and served to create a keen cultural awareness of the seriousness of bullying. Many articles have been published on the subject, programs implemented in schools, and anti-bullying laws put in place. Yet, statistics show that these interventions have little effect on day to day bullying in the playgrounds and corridors of our schools.

If aggression is part of human nature, then so is empathy. Bullies are made, not born. Our society, as a whole, needs to take responsibility for having created a culture in which bullying exists in every middle and high school in the country. How do we reinforce the empathetic nature in our children and discourage the aggression in a milieu that justifies violence as entertainment, is fascinated by power, sees mean spiritedness as humor, and glorifies only a certain body type as attractive?

I believe that when home and preschool environments value, teach, and practice kindness a foundation that prevents bullying later in life can be built.

Normal behavior at the preschool level involves constant experimentation on how to get along with others. Although children have an innate desire to make friends they must learn how to do so. Anyone with a toddler knows that basic social skills, such as sharing or waiting for your turn do not come naturally or easily, yet, even very young children enjoy being around their peers and overflow with affection for others. Children learn by imitation, following the lead of parents, teachers, and older siblings. Modeling thoughtful words and actions is extremely important, but there is more-attention needs to be paid to raising a child with a strong sense of self worth. Bullies are able to hold power in an ambiance of hierarchy and fear. Feeling powerless themselves, they prey on those who they sense can be intimidated.

At the earliest stages of a child’s life, there should be a concerted effort to create an atmosphere of respect that values each and every living creature precisely for their unique qualities; an atmosphere that not only appreciates others but that also honors the self.

“Today you are you, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is youer than you.” Dr. Seuss, Happy Birthday to You!

Books can be extremely helpful in fostering a climate that encourages reflection and instills empathy. Who doesn’t suffer with the ugly duckling or feel angry at the mean swans? In both fairy and modern tales the most important quality, and one not lost on the child, is character. There is a great power in language, and reading to your child is a wonderful way to fill their hearts with caring. There is no need to focus only on books that specifically address bullying (and there are many fine ones for all ages). Books that address diversity such as David McKee’s Elmer the Elephant, champion courage, like Watty Piper’s classic, The Little Engine That Could, or promote individuality as in Kevin Henkes’ Chrysanthemum, help children understand that being little does not mean being incapable and being different does not mean being an outcast. Books of this nature are helpful in beginning conversations that allow the child to examine and express feelings difficult to articulate.

Unconscionably, studies show that children with disabilities are two to three times more likely to be victims of chronic bullying directly related to their disability. (Marshal,Kendall, Banks, & Gover (Eds.) 2009). It is a short distance from being bullied to bullying one’s self: I’m ugly, I’m fat, I’m gross, I’m worthless..words that become a endless reel in the victim’s mind, leading to anxiety, anorexia, depression and other unbalanced emotional states. When parents and teachers cultivate an awareness of others, and introduce an early exposure to people of all colors, ideas, cultures, and disabilities, they are planting the seeds of empathy. While it may be difficult to expose a very young child to this broad family of man, books can take us all over the world, through time and space, and into the thoughts and feelings of a vast diversity of people.

30% of all school age children are either bullies or bullied while 70% look the other way. More than half of all bullying situations stop when a peer intervenes on behalf of the student being bullied. (Hawkins, Pepler, and Craig, 2001) The statistics speak for themselves. Bullying is a cultural phenomenon. There is tremendous strength in the 70%. Let’s raise our children to be courageous, to speak up for injustice. We may not be able to change the reality of bullying, but we can work, from the very beginning, to raise empathetic children, with a sense of individual pride and dignity who will use their 70% majority to speak up for what is right-beginning in the school corridors, and spreading from there out into the world.

Local Hero:

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