Our alliance with non-profit causes does contribute to our focus on teaching children to understand emotions. After all, development of empathy typically starts with recognizing basic emotions, like joy, distress, fear, or anger. There are a vast number of children’s books that focus on emotions, treating them in a range from simple, literal, and straightforward to elaborate and metaphorical.
But, how do we teach children to understand emotions? After all, they are young, right? They have had only a limited amount of exposure to strong emotions up until this point (hopefully mostly positive). It would make sense to say that some tools and resources would be needed to start to teach a child how to recognize emotions that he or she has not yet personally experienced.
Part of what helps children identify feelings in stories is the illustrations. Perhaps this is why children’s books are heavily illustrated and books for adults are not. I personally, love to look at diagrams and illustrations. As an adult, I wonder into the children’s book section or turn on an animated movie just so I can look at the pictures.
It is a wide array of emotions that images, alone or with words, can demonstrate. In fact, our response to emotional images is possible only because we have stored memories of the expressed emotion. These memories come from real life experience or from an earlier experience of fiction. As an example, we may not have personally experienced extreme fear, but the experience we have with any fear may be enough to allow us to connect with a character’s situation.
When we read images, we look for recognizable emotions. This is how we apply theory of mind in real life. Cognitive studies show that the most prominent features that reflect human emotions are the eyes and the mouth. These features are universal. This is why children can relate to an learn from animal characters in storybooks. Much like a human, a the shape of the animal character’s mouth can lead the reader to accurate emotional conclusions throughout any illustrated children’s book. It’s the same with eyes. Wide open eyes obviously indicate surprise or fear. Therefore, the right combinations of eye and mouth gestures can strongly suggests the emotion of a particular scene.
Effective illustration is what makes our storybooks a great resource to teaching children about emotions. Illustrations add strength to the words in the story. They help to reinforce what’s happening on a higher level than words alone. Its this higher level of understanding that children are able to learn to identify the feelings of the story and their own feelings too.
So, reading emotional stories with your children does help them to identify and understand emotions. And, it is with this understanding that children can go on to learn to feel empathy towards animals, other humans and even our planet.