Research-Based Parent Education and Support

Empathy for Middle Schoolers

Posted by on Sep 12, 2013 in Social Emotional Development | 0 comments

Empathy for Middle Schoolers

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My children and I recently read two books that deeply affected us, sparking many good discussions.  The first was Wonder, by RJ Palacio, a book about a boy with facial deformities who enters school for the first time as a fifth grader after having been home schooled up to that point.  I had heard good things about the book from friends and seen positive reviews, and since my own children were facing the school year entering new schools in very unfamiliar environments, I thought it might be a good idea for them to read about a boy who had to overcome much more challenging hurdles than they.

The second book was Schooled, by Gordon Korman, which was required summer reading for all 7th graders entering my daughters’ (new) middle school.  Schooled is also about a boy who enters school for the first time, in 7th grade, after having been home schooled his whole life.

Both books were insightful and engaging.  It was interesting to me that both authors chose to write chapters from different characters’ points of view.  Both authors managed to capture life, social strata, conversations, motivations and middle school perspectives with grace and clarity.  I was brought to tears more than once in both books, and I believe my children shed a tear or two themselves.  It was easy for me to empathize with most main characters as both authors did an excellent job of portraying their thoughts and reactions.

Although there were many similarities between the two books, on main difference was that Auggie, the main character in Wonder is painfully aware of his differences and other peoples’ reactions to him.  He knows that he is completely unable to change the thing that makes him stand apart from other people and keeps him from truly fitting in and being a regular kid.  Cap, the main character in Schooled is aware that he is different and out of his comfort zone, but is completely unable to read the social cues around him and does not realize how he appears to others.  Cap’s differences are cultural, while Auggie’s are physical, and thus Cap can (and most likely will) be able to overcome the differences and look back on middle school as being a time of transition.  Auggie’s condition is permanent.

What was most interesting to me, beyond the fact that these were books I enjoyed reading and would recommend to any parent and child over 10, was the way that my own children identified with the characters.  After many a casual conversation and discussion regarding the books, I am left with the impression that while they found the plight of the main characters to be sad, they did not in any way identify with them.   I believe they felt the emotions that the authors intended for them to feel, but I doubt that their behavior will change as a result of these books.

My 7th grade daughter entered a new middle school last week, a middle school that is 3 times the size of her old one.  She knows no one here, and has moved from another country, which makes her feel quite different.  It is a difficult transition for her as she feels as though no one is talking to her or including her and she feels quite lost and lonely.  My heart breaks on her behalf as her tears flow every afternoon and evening due to the challenge of starting over at a new school.

Yet, in her writing, having to react to the book, Schooled for her English class, she still does not identify at all with Cap.  She sees herself in other characters, but not as the new kid struggling to fit in.

I want my kids to keep reading books that show them the world from different points of view.  I desire for their worlds to open up beyond their own perspectives, but at the same time, I must realize that reading a book (or many) is hardly enough.  We adults can empathize more easily, but we should not assume that children glean the same insights from reading as we do.  It’s paramount that we talk about what we read and the things that we see.  We need to intentionally incorporate discussions of other people’s books and stories into our everyday lives.

Read the books your children are reading, and talk about them together!  Your lives will be enriched, I guarantee it!

Have you read any good books lately?

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