Teaching Empathy Through Stories

Didactic 19th & 20th-century children's stories often have a big moral that can help teach character. Let's dust some of them off, shall we?

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When I was in the 4th grade, a long time ago, before dirt was invented, I was regularly bullied by a group of mean girls. The bullying was fairly typical, like snarky comments, and some was physical. But this isn’t a story about me. It’s a story about empathy and how we grow it.

While I lived in fear of those girls, I also felt sad for them, wondering how they got to be so mean. I imagined they had an impoverished home life, or cruel parents, which led to their feeling “bad” about themselves. While I didn’t have the vocabulary to express it at the time, what I was feeling was empathy for my enemies.

In my life up to that point, no one had specifically engaged me in any “empathy training.” At my Catholic school, the nuns’ teaching had much more to do with the fear of hell (or Mother Superior) than anything else. No, my empathy training came to me at a young age through my addiction to the myriad magical stories from my father’s “My Book House” collection. Filled with extraordinary imagery and landscapes, stories like “Prince Cherry,” “The Honest Woodsman,” and “Toads and Diamonds” are indelibly imprinted in my heart and soul, and I credit them with shaping the person I am today.

One of my favorites, “Prince Harweda and the Magic Prison,” tells the tale of a young prince who, spoiled by his parents, grows into a disagreeable and peevish child. [Lesson 1: Do not grow up to be disagreeable and peevish.] To punish him for this bad behavior, his wise fairy godmother (of course she’s wise... who ever heard of a stupid fairy godmother?) shuts him in a gilded prison where he appears to have everything he could ever want, including the companionship of a charming little songbird, but he’s not free to leave. Complaining about his imprisonment, the prince takes out his anger on the little bird. [Lesson 2: Do not project your misfortunes onto others.]  And every time he does, the palace windows narrow, little by little, until finally he is imprisoned in the dark. After several days of darkness, he thinks he hears a sound:

“He listened eagerly. It seemed to be some tiny creature not far from him, trying to move about. For the first time for nearly a month he remembered the bird in its gilded cage. “Poor little thing,” he cried as he sprang up, “you, too, are shut within this terrible prison. This thick darkness must be as hard for you to bear as it is for me.” He went towards the cage and as he approached it the bird gave a sad little chirp. 

“You must need some water to drink,” he continued as he filled its drinking cup. “This is all I have to give you.”*

At this glimmer of care for someone other than himself, the window opens in a glorious sliver of light. And as Prince Harweda gradually reinvents himself, the windows open further. Eventually, his fairy godmother releases him from his dark prison, and he grows up to be a kindly and fair ruler. [Lesson 3: Grow up to be nice.]

What person would fail to take away the life lessons in this fable? What child wouldn’t weep for the little bird, all alone in his cage?  

Stories like these show us how to be in the world by allowing us to imagine ourselves in the shoes of the protagonist. We learn empathy as Prince Harweda does.  

According to the d.School at Stanford University, empathy is  “the centerpiece of a human-centered design process,” the first in a series of steps to fully understand the audience for a problem one is trying to solve. Empathy is “your effort to understand the way they do things and why, their physical and emotional needs, how they think about world, and what is meaningful to them.” As we encourage empathy in young children, we set the stage for their ability to innovate the future. 

Eventually, my tormenters got detention for a week. However, my principal taught them a lesson that mattered more than a year’s worth of detention: She asked them to imagine how I felt after they cornered me in the schoolyard and took turns spitting on me. When she did that, they cried. 

Many years later, I ran into one of those girls on the subway in Boston, far from where we grew up. The first thing she did was apologize. 

*From My Bookhouse, Volume III: Through Fairy Halls, ed. Olive Beaupré Miller. Illustration: Donn P. Crane.

Optional: How comfortable do you feel incorporating character education in your curriculum? (1-10, where 10 = very comfortable!)

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Optional: Tell us more! What's one thing you wish there was more of / less of when it comes to character learning in schools?

More storytelling!

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Photo of Barbara Lee

I think stories and storytelling are what makes us human; it's how we learn how to be in the world. 

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