26.2.14

A Pro-Empathy Reading List

I am re-posting this in honour of Pink Shirt Day. I don't have any problems with the sentiment behind wearing a pink shirt to say that you are anti-bullying but I think that it's good to look at it as an opening gambit in the conversation about way of building empathy.

from Skim

I'm interested in suggestions for an Empathy Reading List--books that we can give to teens to help them see the world from a perspective other than their own.  Really, any good fiction can do this but here are some books that deal specifically with issues around high school bullying, cyberbullying or just plain old being different (always a tough one in high school).  I will add to the list as suggestions come in through comments here or over on twitter @saraoleary.
Another Kind of Cowboy by Susan Juby
Getting the Girl by Susan Juby
Wonder by R.J. Palacio
Skim by Mariko Tamaki and Gillian Tamaki
Words That Start with B by Vikki Vansickle
What I Was by Meg Rosoff
Matilda by Roald Dahl
Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner
Encore Edie by Annabel Lyon
Odd Man Out by Sarah Ellis
Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
Metawars Heff Norton
Wintergirls Laurie Halse Anderson
Holes by Louis Sachar
Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
America by ER Frank
Speak Laurie Halse Anderson
Monocerous by Suzette Mayr

I haven't read all of these but I have read and reviewed several. Here is my review of What I Was. I'll try to post some of the other reviews as I find them.
Studies have shown a direct link between reading fiction and empathy in young people. There have been a number of recent articles on the subject including this one by Keith Oately in Psychology Today.  This link between fiction and empathy seems to be a good place to start in thinking about problems of bulling and cyberbullying.
I wrote here about the Pink Shirt campaign the other day, trying to work through for myself why the idea of being Anti-Bullying didn't seem terribly useful to me.   And I'm still not at all sure about demonizing bullies as a way of instilling greater compassion in our young people.
But I have been reading up on Pink Shirt Day and to be honest I'm kind of impressed. It originates with the actions of some Nova Scotian high school students and occurs annually on February 27. Rick Mercer has this to say on Jer's Vision: Canada's Youth Diversity Initiative:
It's this failure of compassion or empathy that seems almost endemic in our society that truly frightens me.  And it's got me thinking about ways to inculcate these values in our children. There's a fascinating program designed to address these problems called Roots of Empathy.  You can read the first chapter of the book about it here.  It says: 
When students in Nova Scotia saw a younger student being harassed because he was wearing pink, they decided to do something. They took it upon themselves to buy every pink shirt in town and they did it on their own dime.  The next day they handed these shirts out at school. Suddenly the bullies who were making this young man’s life miserable were surrounded by students in pink. They learned in no uncertain terms that the vast majority of kids were not going to accept their behavior. Message sent. To me, the kindness, courage, compassion and creativity exhibited by this gesture is what being Canadian is all about.
I agree that it's a good message and that those young Nova Scotians deserve kudos for what they did.  It's good to remember when the news is full of the stories of what some other young men from that area did and the consequences their actions had.  Rehtaeh Parsons was driven to suicide by the sexual assault that she suffered and the distribution of images related to that assault.  Those were criminal actions--not anything as innocuous-sounding as bullying--but part of her suffering was to do with the the ongoing circulation of those images and the cruel comments made about her by her peers through social media.  And that kind of cyberbullying is all too common right now.
The program is based on the idea that if we are able to take the perspective of the Other we will notice and appreciate our commonalities and we will be less likely to allow differences to cause us to marginalize, hate or hurt each other.
And that seems to me to be a good place to start.  Reading fiction helps children to develop emotional literacy and that means they will be better equipped to see the suffering of others and be moved to do something about it.

I've written about empathy here before and I'd like to once again direct readers to this article by Nikhil Goyal about empathy on the Globe and Mail site. The article gives some alarming statistics:
Today, there is a dearth of empathy in young people. After analyzing data among almost 14,000 college students over the last 30 years, a University of Michigan study two years ago concluded that college students are 40 per cent less empathetic than their counterparts in 1979. Indeed, the most significant drop has been in the past decade. What’s more, cases of bullying and suicides are climbing at an alarming pace. That means empathy education is needed more than ever before.
Happily, empathy education is being addressed in at least some of our schools.  I learned today about The Empathy Factory which is a fantastic initiative out of Nova Scotia.   According to their site:  "The Empathy Factory was founded on the belief that by instilling empathy in our youth, injustices will be stopped, communities transformed and hope inspired."  

So there are reasons to be hopeful.  And I will be doing my best to think pink.

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