As the parent of four boys, I should know better than to expect any of them to be similar in personality, but every once in a while, I’m caught off guard and have to be reminded that, oh yeah, this is a different kid who will need to be parented differently. (Is “parented” even a word?)
When my third child, “Grub” was two, he refused to eat anything for meals but cereal and cheese. We couldn’t get him to try anything else, but we would find 8 oz. blocks of cheddar with a Cookie Monster-like bite out of the corner hidden in couch cushions and behind blinds. All my usual tricks to get the other two boys to try new foods didn’t seem to work with him. We tried making him stay at the table long after dinner. We tried offering extra t.v. time. Once we even got a fancy, yummy-looking cupcake we knew he’d want and placed it in front of him as a reward for just three bites of actual food. Nothing worked. The kid was stubborn.
Then one day, at my wit’s end, I tried something that seemed ludicrous to me and I still don’t know where the idea came from: I pretended to cry. I wasn’t even that good at fake crying, but he immediately grabbed his fork and said, “Don’t cry, Mom. I will eat my potatoes for you. I will make you happy. Watch me eat this fish and don’t be sad.” It was a miracle.
So at every meal, I honed my acting skills and he learned to like a variety of foods. His older brothers caught on to this aspect of his personality and exploited it. They could get him to share anything or clean up anything they asked just by acting sad. It was shameless, really. He eventually grew out of his stubborn phase, but he is still just as soft-hearted (and just as addicted to cereal).
Then Fritz came along. Maybe it’s payback for all my blatant emotional manipulation of Grub, or maybe it’s that he’s just a completely different person, but for Fritz, empathy does not come naturally. He’s a good-natured kid who’s fun to be around, but he seems to get uncomfortable around real emotion. He even faked a headache while watching Inside Out at the theater because it was just too much for him. We sat out in the hallway waiting for the rest of the family until it was over.
I figured it was just a phase and was willing to wait it out, but then he started to react to other people’s pain with jokes and sarcasm, like “…and that’s a good thing!” We weren’t sure if he was just saying that to hide is discomfort or if he really does have trouble empathizing with others. Either way, I decided I needed to find a way to teach him empathy. This was a first for me as a parent.
I tried to think back at times when he appeared to feel actual empathy and I realized the two times I remembered seeing him cry because something sad had happened to someone else were when I was reading stories to him. He cried when the boy in Polar Express lost his bell and he really lost it when the old lady in A Small Miracle had to pawn her accordion only to have the money stolen. (If you haven’t seen this Christmas book, please do! I am forever grateful to my friend Kathleen for giving it to us so many years ago. It’s our favorite.)
I thought of recent news articles about studies linking reading fiction and feeling empathy, and realized that, much like my other boys at that age, Fritz always chose nonfiction books to read. I decided I needed to find books for him that would trigger his emotions and help him see and feel things from others’ points of view. I figured that it would work better if I read them aloud to him so we could stop and talk about those things as we read. I searched the internet for ideas, but most articles and book lists about teaching empathy weren’t what I had in mind. Those books were specifically about understanding others’ feelings. I wanted books that would evoke feelings for others. (I’m not saying that only sad books can teach empathy, or that we only read to improve our character. I’m just saying that I was looking for sad books for this particular kid and this particular purpose.)
It seemed a bit backward to me – most parents want their kids to be happy and here I was working hard to find ways to make my kid cry. Since I couldn’t find much help online, I started by thinking of books I remember making me cry, then asking friends for suggestions. Fritz was not a fan of reading aloud. In his mind, only preschoolers needed their parents to read to them.
We started with The One and Only Ivan. It was a struggle to get him to agree to it each night, and often it was a struggle to find time to do it regularly, but we made our way through it. There was no miraculous reaction on his part, but he did seem to like getting to cuddle in my fleece sheets. (I can get my kids to do just about anything for the chance to hang out in my fleece sheets. They are heavenly.)
We made our way through a few more books on our list but I still wasn’t sure if we were getting anywhere. We were going to read Charlotte’s Web next, but then got tickets to the play instead. Did I mention that Fritz also really hates plays? He thinks plays and movies are too long and boring, but I promised that this wouldn’t be as long as the last play he’d seen. We took our neighbor with us as added incentive and were finally able to convince him to come, although he was grumbling about it the whole way there.
I had hopes that Fritz would feel something, but I wasn’t holding my breath. So far, all our attempts to understand book characters’ feelings had resulted in eye rolling and snide comments, but he seemed to enjoy the play. Then, during the scene where Charlotte dies, Fritz turned to me and mumbled something that I couldn’t really understand, so I asked him to repeat himself. It sounded to me like maybe he wanted to act out the play at home, so when he said, “What if you were Charlotte?” I misunderstood and thought he was just assigning parts. When he repeated himself, he said, “What if you were Charlotte? That would be…” and then he made a raspberry noise and a thumb’s down sign.
Still confused, I asked, “Why would that be bad?”
He leaned over and furrowed his brow, “Because she died!” I suddenly realized that he was telling me he would be sad if I died like Charlotte did. This was a really big deal. There was no avoidance, no “…and that would be a good thing, heh heh.” He was feeling real things and he had expressed those feelings to me, all triggered by Charlotte’s Web. He turned back to watch the rest of the play and I sat sobbing in the dark. I finally had some hope that this experiment of mine was doing some good.
After a year of slowly chipping away at our list, I am in need of more suggestions (some on the list aren’t quite age-appropriate for him yet). Plus, since my search led to slim pickings, maybe someone else might benefit as well. I’ll post what I’ve got so far and hope for suggestions from everyone else. Notice I left off “Love You Forever” and “The Giving Tree”. I’m not a fan of those two. Also, feel free to suggest any non-sad books that encourage kindness and empathy. We could all use a little more of that nowadays.
SAD CHILDREN’S BOOKS:
The One and Only Ivan – Katherine Applegate
Tuck Everlasting – Natalie Babbit
Those Shoes – Maribeth Boelts
A Small Miracle – Peter Collington
The BFG – Roald Dahl
The Hundred Dresses – Eleanor Estes
Old Yeller – Fred Gipson
The Chronicles of Narnia – C.S. Lewis
The Toys Go Out – E. Lockhart
Bridge to Terabithia – Katherine Paterson
Where the Red Fern Grows – Wilson Rawls
Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch – Eileen Spinelli
A Taste of blackberries – Doris Buchanan Smith
A Sick Day for Amos McGee – Phillip C. Stead
Leonardo the Terrible Monster – Mo Willems
The Velveteen Rabbit – Margery Williams
Charlotte’s Web – E.B. White