Once again, I walked through the landfill graveyard in Tijuana, Mexico. (See previous post, A Giant Web in the Brain – The Science of Creativity.) This time it was a bright Saturday afternoon in November.
While I hiked the irregular and rutted ground to admire the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) decorations, I witnessed an amazing act of spontaneous compassion coming from the children of the landfill. These children live in poverty that is truly unimaginable yet their hearts overflow with concern for less fortunate creatures.
It went down like this:
Twelve young children led by two 10-year-old girls, Fatima and Elly, played among the tombstones.
According to the girls, recounting the part of the story I hadn’t seen, a car speeding down the road struck and killed one of the stray dogs that roamed the landfill. The driver got out of his vehicle to make sure his car was okay, and as an afterthought, he tossed the dog into the graveyard.
Once he drove off, the children crowded around the poor dog, feeling pity for the animal. Upset by the man’s behavior, they tried to figure out what to do.
Fatima and Elly took charge and led the younger kids across the road to a house where they borrowed a shovel and a garden spade.
They returned to the graveyard and set about finding a spot among the human graves to dig a final resting place for the “¡Pobre perrito!”
The ground was hard and they struggled. A volunteer from our medical team approached the children and offered to help dig the grave.
The kids handed her the shovel and a small grave was quickly dug in a shallow depression in the dirt near a bright blue tomb and bush full of berries.
Then the children took control again. They ran back to the dog’s body and carefully picked it up, carried it to the hole and gently placed it inside. They took turns covering it with dirt, then decorated the grave with boughs of berries, flowers and smooth stones arranged in the shape of a cross.
After a few solemn moments at the gravesite, they eventually went back to playing, surrounded by all the colorful Day of the Dead tributes.
I felt lucky to observe this simple act of compassion coming from these kids. As a dog owner, it was very moving to watch. These remarkable children had compassion far beyond their years and their circumstances. I told them so.
Have you ever seen young children show more concern than an adult? Why do some children show such compassion while others are bullies or brutal to their peers? Or to animals?
Empathy is the capacity to understand and appreciate the feelings of another and to use these feelings to guide one’s actions.
Learning compassion early in life certainly builds moral character, reduces bullying, and cultivates confidence. Teaching children compassion and respect for fellow human beings helps them become better adults and it also helps the less fortunate in their own communities.
Studies indicate there are several key experiences that actually teach kids compassion/empathy:
1) If they see compassion in action: Children learn by example. If they witness compassion in their lives, they absorb those qualities. Fatima and Elly were definitely teaching the younger children by their example.
2) If they actually live/practice compassion: Studies show that children who practice compassion at an early age will be more compassionate as teens and adults. This can include helping at a homeless shelter, donating to the needy, or burying an unfortunate animal. These twelve young kids took it upon themselves to be compassionate to an unfortunate dog.
3) If they read/hear stories of compassion: This is important for us as writers, teachers, and parents. Numerous studies show that reading literary fiction and/or other quality stories that demonstrate compassion greatly increases the reader’s empathy for others.
Compassion is a common character trait in good stories. Children that read these books or hear them read aloud are exposed to examples of human kindness that perhaps are missing in their regular lives.
Books can teach kids to be kind to one another, to animals, and to nature, all through the example found in a great story. This is one reason why fiction can be as important as non-fiction in a child’s education. It’s also why we need to think about our character’s traits when we write.
We should encourage those we know, teachers and parents and librarians, to obtain or read books that portray positive human qualities for the proven effect it has on young readers.
There are numerous books out there that convey a beautiful message about empathy or compassion in the storyline. It’s really hard to narrow down and pick a few classics to mention, but some of my favorites are:
For the Very Young, but can be appreciated by all ages:
Sam and the Lucky Money by Karen Chinn
Angelo by David Macaulay
The Great Kapok Tree: A Tale of the Amazon Rain Forest by Lynne Cherry
For Middle Grade and Tweens:
Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo
Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls
One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
Stone Fox by John Reynolds Gardiner
Older Tweens and YA:
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Wonder by R. J. Palacios
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
And many, many more…..
Have you witnessed spontaneous acts of compassion by young children? What are your favorite books that show compassion or empathy?
Kathryn Sant is a retired obstetrician who has witnessed the births of thousands of future readers. She has published a middle-grade novel, Desert Chase (Scholastic), and under the pseudonym BBH McChiller she is a co-author of the fun, spooky Monster Moon mystery series. Curse at Zala Manor is the first book in the series, Secret of Haunted Bog is the second title, and Legend of Monster Island is the third. She is currently working on two middle-grade boys’ adventure novels and the next Monster Moon book.
Her interest in adventure, research, and genealogy has led to a love of world travel, exotic adventures, and museums of all kinds. But she also enjoys quiet evenings reading with her dogs at her side.