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Using Poetry to Introduce Empathy into Your Child's Life

by Toni Nagy

Toni Nagy

An advocate of Ashoka’s “Start Empathy” Initiative, Toni Nagy currently owns a dance studio in Brattleboro, Vermont, and writes for Huffington Post, Salon, AlterNet, and her own blog, Toni Bologna. Read more »

Sorry, Toni Nagy is no longer taking questions.

Children are born artists. They love to draw, paint, sculpt, and tell stories. They also tend to appreciate doing these activities with their parents, and as a mom or dad, you can take an active role in your kid's creative identity.

Most children are very interested in reading, and love having the same books read to them every day - over and over and over again. I think I personally have read “Goodnight Moon” so many times I hide the book just to get a break for a few hours. My daughter is captivated by words, and responds very much to patterns, rhymes, and poetic syntax. Dr. Seuss understood how rhythm plays a huge part in a child’s connection to writing, and as a result his poetic prose are some of the most beloved.

There is an abstraction to poetry that although may intimidate some adults, can really inspire children. The child’s mind is poetic by nature. It makes conceptual connections that are born from seeing the world in a unique undefined way, and relies on emotion to communicate a message.

Poetry, like empathy, can be undervalued in today’s modern world. Poetry has the capacity to make the audience feel and not just think. Poetry takes the readers on a journey through their own emotional spectrum and that is why it is an art form that parents can find very valuable for their children. In order to appreciate poetry, one has to be open to one’s own empathetic nature, and that in and of itself is an act of social justice--the true power of art. Parents can read poetry with their children to interpret and analyze more complex issues together. Connecting to that part of us that innately understands and appreciates the empathetic state of mind in a wondrously meaningful practice that poetry instills in its readers.

Here are some tips on how to use poetry as a means of introducing empathy into your child’s life.

1. When my daughter is angry she often acts out. Although I can understand why she may be frustrated, it is also imperative that she learns to express her temper in a way that is not damaging to herself or other people. Part of what helps her calm down is expressing empathy towards her. Saying “I know you are really angry because you want to stay at the park, but it is time to go home now.” After the moment has passed, we can talk about what happened, and what lessons are to be learned. Often times we do that through my making up a poem about the incident and we read it together. Sometimes I make her character an animal, or princess, or fairy to make it more exciting, but she relates the story back to her own life. She then can analyze her behavior through her own moral compass rather than my telling her.

2. Beyond reading poems with your child, it is also incredibly fun and rewarding to write poems together. My daughter and I pick a topic, and then she writes a line, and I write a line. We co-create something, and are inspired by each other’s thought process. We are not only connecting to one another, but also to whatever the subject we are writing about. It is a way of bringing up themes of empathy, but in practice not in speech.

3. As a child, you are dealing with so many feelings, and it is often challenging to express them clearly. I think that’s why tantrums and meltdowns are a part of their lives. It is not only that they are upset, but also because they don’t know how to directly communicate their emotions. I know I personally feel most lonely and helpless when I am misunderstood. Poetry is a great means of conveying complex ideas and connecting to our emotional selves. It can be used as a tool to better articulate our feelings. You can pick an emotion with your child, like sadness, anger, or happiness, and write a poem together about that emotion. What would cause it? How does it feel in that subject’s body? And if it is a negative emotion, what could happen in the poem to make the subject feel better? By identifying with the subject of the poem you are helping teach your child about understanding the feelings of others.

4. Not every person is a writer, but everyone has an imagination. Poetry is a fantastic way to express the inner workings of the mind, but with more creative freedom than writing a narrative. Practicing free association with your child is a wonderful technique to spark their visionary minds. Picking a concept and then going with whatever comes first into their thoughts. You can discuss their transitions, and what made them associate one idea with the next. Then you can reverse roles and you write the poem and they ask you the questions. This exorcise is an example of how to talk and listen to another person and participate in their self-analysis.

Wanting my daughter to connect to her creativity and empathy has helped me connect to mine. I find so much comfort knowing that by engaging her artistic side, I can help her understand such meaningful concepts as empathy and compassion for the world around her.

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