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Walk in their shoes: How to speak to our children about the state of the nation

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As the mother of three boys and a teacher, I am saddened by the state of our nation. I work hard to teach kindness and empathy at home and in my classroom, and then I watch the news. I take a deep breath, wipe the tears from my eyes and say to myself, “There is so much more work to be done.” I need to do more. We need to do more.

Over the past week, I have heard parents and teachers ask, “What can we do to help our children understand what is happening in our nation without scaring them? What can we do to teach our children that it is important to take care of one another and to stand up against hatred? What can we do to teach our children to be upstanders, instead of bystanders?”

I believe the number one thing that we can do today, tomorrow, and in the future is teach our children about kindness and empathy.

Depending upon the age of your child, you may not want to discuss the details of the events that have taken place over the last week. But that does not mean that you can’t start teaching kindness and empathy in your home today.

While it may feel like this simple lesson will not make a difference, think about the stone you have placed in the water by teaching your child about kindness and empathy.

Now think about that first ripple of water that surrounds the stone. That ripple hits another ripple. And that ripple hits another. And the ripples surrounding the stone that was initially filled with kindness and empathy continues to reach other parts of the water...and those parts of the water reach other parts of the water. And the empathy and kindness just keeps spreading.

We can begin to teach these lessons to our children by encouraging perspective thinking.

Perspective thinking can help children to empathize with others. Conversations and playing “what if” games are a great way to encourage perspective thinking, but books can also help to deliver messages of empathy.

In Drew Daywalt’s children’s book, The Day the Crayons Quit, Red Crayon feels overworked. Beige Crayon is tired of being called “light brown” or “dark tan.” And Peach Crayon is extremely upset with his owner, Duncan. Why would he pick off all of his paper wrapping? How embarrassing!

Whether or not it was Daywalt’s intention when he wrote this book, his story has helped to plant seeds of empathy in even the tiniest readers who wonder what their crayons might feel like or say if they were actually living and breathing.

But the lessons of empathy do not stop in children’s picture books.

Children have opportunities to explore themes of empathy in middle-grade novels as well. Take Sharon Creech’s Walk Two Moons, for example, when Sal tries to understand a mysterious message that says, "Don't judge a man until you've walked two moons in his moccasins." And who can forget Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird when Atticus Finch tells Scout, “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”?

Literature can support messages of empathy, but how do we, as teachers and parents, help children to truly understand the importance of walking around in someone else’s shoes? How can we encourage children to be kinder and more caring as they consider what it feels like to be the person who does not have a home in which to live? Or the person who is mistreated? Or what about the person who is simply having a bad day?

Courses taught by the Boston-based organization, Facing History and Ourselves, have helped me and thousands of educators around the nation to create classrooms of empathy by bringing literature and history to life for students.

Upon completion of specific courses, like “Holocaust and Human Behavior,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and “the Little Rock Nine,” teachers are well-equipped to meet students halfway in the classroom in order to reach them. When the topic can be made more personal for students so that they understand why it matters and how it relates to their own lives, students are more deeply engaged in learning.

For example, when teaching To Kill a Mockingbird, students may be asked to reflect on a time when they have been treated unjustly. Then, they are asked to reflect on a time when they have treated someone else unjustly. Reflections such as these allow students to make personal connections to the characters who are victims of racism, sexism, and discrimination in the small town of Maycomb.

One can start to plant seeds of empathy through the exploration of “identity” first and then a study and reflection of “we and they”.

Before delving into history’s past, it is important that students explore their own identity first ("Who am I?"). Next, students explore the identity of each historical figure they encounter. Then, students take a closer look at the conflict that took place during the particular time in history in which they are studying.

They then research and discuss the conflict by stepping into the shoes of historical figures who represent each side of the conflict. This helps students to better understand how these historical moments occurred in the first place.

Finally, at the conclusion of the historical study, students reflect and brainstorm what they can do as individuals to make sure that history does not repeat itself.

Encouraging children to write can also be helpful when teaching perspective thinking. While most teachers encourage students to write about a particular topic in third person, it is crucial that students have the opportunity to write in first person when role playing or analyzing identity and conflict. This first-person lens is what helps students to develop an empathetic mindset.

Why is it so important to teach children how to be empathetic? As teachers and parents, we know that empathy — most importantly — helps children to better understand others. It creates a culture and a community of kindness and peace and helps to make people less likely to judge or be critical of others.

While this is probably the single most important reason for teaching empathy, it also helps to create critical thinkers and children who will grow up to be problem solvers, peacekeepers, and inventors of change.

Sure, reading a textbook and taking notes can help some students learn and retain information. But teach students about perspective and how to walk around in someone’s shoes for a bit, and every student — every child — will have a meaningful learning experience that will remain in the forefront of minds for years to come.

I know that I’ve got work to do. We all have work to do. Now, let’s get going, and let’s do this together!

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