Empathy: The catalyst for positive connections & change

By Trudy Ludwig

Boy readingLet’s face it. We’ve got big problems in our country that are rooted in greed, abuse of power, ignorance, fear, and denial. Take, for example, the horrific adult role modeling exhibited in the US presidential primaries in which blatant bullying tactics are dividing our nation rather than unifying it. And don’t even get me started as to how these cringe-worthy public displays of put-downs are counter-productive to all the hard-working bullying prevention efforts many adults and kids are using to create positive, caring, and inclusive communities.

While I don’t profess to have the magic pill to cure all that ails us, I will say that if contempt and disregard for our fellow human beings are the bane of our problems, empathy and kindness are the balm. As Dr. Michele Borba shares in her powerful, new book, UnSelfie, “Our children are our best hope for a humane world, and it all starts with empathy.”

We’re talking Empathy with a capital “E” here, folks: what it feels like to be in someone else’s shoes and feeling compassion for that person’s pain and suffering. Empathetic children, according to the extensive research findings cited in Borba’s book, are more resilient, score higher academically, and are happier than children who are not emotionally attuned to and compassionate toward others. My takeaway from her book is that empathy gives us a huge advantage when it comes to achieving happiness, healthier social-emotional connections, and success.

Want to boost your child’s empathy? Read on!

And I mean that literally because neuroscientists report that stories—fiction, in particular—can actually make your brain more empathetic. Stories are wonderful supplemental tools to use in the home, classroom, and counseling practitioner’s office to foster empathy and perspective. Why? Dr. Zipora Schectman, author of Treating Child and Adolescent Aggression Through Bibliotherapy, says it best: “Through the imaginative process that reading involves, children have the opportunity to do what they often cannot do in real life—become thoroughly involved in the inner lives of others, better understand them, and eventually become more aware of themselves.”

While many readers of fiction see me and my literary colleagues as “authors,” I see us as “bridge builders.” We build bridges with our stories, connecting readers to the characters we create, to the story itself, and to each other as readers collectively sharing a common experience.

A good story not only captures our imagination, it also captures our heart. It allows us entry into the characters’ thoughts, feelings, and actions, the choices those characters make when faced with a major dilemma or crisis, and the consequences—good, bad, and ugly—of their choices. Stories can challenge and influence our attitudes and beliefs on various hot-button issues in a safe social setting.

Authors are, by no means, the only wordsmiths worth noting. We are all storytellers at heart, using our words—whether spoken or written—to create our own narratives as to how we choose to see ourselves and how we choose to see others. We must all use our words wisely to ensure we build healthier, stronger connections with one another. When it comes right down to it, Empathy is all about building bridges, not walls.

Trudy Ludwig is a nationally renowned children’s advocate, speaker, and bestselling author of nine children’s books that address bullying and friendship issues. For more information about Trudy and her work to help kids thrive in their social world, visit www.trudyludwig.com.