Madison Bishop explores how we can encourage empathy and compassion through language and education.
Since I began working with kids, I’ve gotten used to a lot of unexpected questions. “Why do you have hair?” is one I answered my first week on the job as the public library’s new children’s librarian, directed at me by an accusatory preschooler who did not seem to realize that everyone in the room with him (save a few bald infants) had hair, too. I thought for a moment before responding, “I think we all have hair to keep our head warm. But we can research it together, if you want.” In the time since, I’ve answered inquiries about sharks, Judy Blume, peanut allergies, and everything in between.
But the most common question, the one that every parent and teacher knows well, is “Why?”
Usually, I am asked this by children who come into the room and immediately run to the large fish tank at the front of the room, excitedly tapping the glass and pressing their hands and faces to the spot nearest where the fish are gathered.
“Please don’t touch the tank,” I call from wherever I’m standing.
About half of the children immediately back down, chastened by a stern voice from on high. The other half, though, turn inquisitively toward me, tiny fingers still raised mid-tap.
“Why?” they ask.
I’ve had this conversation many times, and I have my answer down to a science. I explain, “because hitting the glass frightens and bewilders the fish. It hurts their ears and makes them scared. It’s not nice to do.” I can tell by the wide eyes and lowered hands that this interaction is the first time that some children learn to recognize that animals have their own needs and fears. The fish in the tank, though they can’t express themselves in ways that are always recognizable by humans, can be hurt and scared. Usually, I only have to have this conversation with children once. The next time they come in, they watch the fish without touching.
Teachers and librarians are often the first people outside of the family who shape the experiences of young children. As a vegan, it’s vital to me that children who step into one of my storytime programs or interact with the animals and people in the room learn that all living things deserve respect and compassion. This learning experience does not have to be patronizing or boring, but can happen as a natural part of any interaction. Here are three simple things I do as a vegan librarian to encourage empathy in young learners:
Use lessons that celebrate animals as thinking, feeling beings. When I am reading books aloud to children, I try to choose titles that inspire feelings of wonder and excitement about the lives of animals and encourage empathy for those who may not express their emotions in ways that are familiar to humans. Just like I won’t read books that perpetuate harmful stereotypes about other people, I also won’t read books that make living in a zoo or on a farm seem like a universally positive experience. It’s impossible to avoid books and songs about blithely cheerful farm animals, but during storytimes I do try to steer clear of books that specifically depict dairy cows or laying hens.
Use language and embody behaviors that promotes respect. While I think reading in all its forms is a wonderful thing, when I am reading a book to a big group of kids, I consider it an opportunity to demonstrate the kinds of behaviors I find valuable. That means listening, respecting each other’s space, and letting everyone participate in their own way. It also means sharing books, songs, and stories that promote kindness, compassion, and patience. I use kind turns of phrase, like “there’s more than one way to peel an onion,” “feed two birds at once,” and “bringing home the bagels” to help move away from language that normalizes brutality toward animals. Similarly, when talking about animals, I use he, she, or they to refer to them instead of “it.” Even simple language changes like these can have a profound impact on how young children think of animals.
Get familiar with books and other resources that promote kindness toward animals. While Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White and Ferdinand by Munro Leaf paved the way for compassionate animal stories, there are tons of modern, fun, and informative books out there to share with little ones. ‘Twas the Night Before Thanksgiving by Dav Pilkey is a sweet and silly story about children visiting a turkey farm before Thanksgiving and–spoiler alert!–rescuing every single bird. Hooray for Fish and Hooray for Birds by Lucy Cousins are celebratory and endlessly shareable stories about the titular animals, while I Got a New Friend by Karl Edwards shows the remarkable similarities between a girl and her puppy, complete with a fun twist at the end. The Digger and the Flower by Joseph Kuefler is much like Ferdinand, now updated for a new generation of truck lovers. A Boy and a Jaguar by Alan Robinowitz is the true story of how the author founded a jaguar rescue. I have read all of these books to big groups of children with wonderful results. These are accessible and joyful books that any picture book lover will want to read over and over.
Working with children is the greatest joy in my life, but I am aware every day that the things I choose to share with children can have a profound impact on them later on. Teachers, caregivers, and librarians are uniquely positioned to instill values of kindness and compassion in the next generation, and sometimes promoting those values can be as simple as changing some of the words we use and reading a good book together.