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Teaching Children to Care: The Literature Approach
By Marilyn E. Mecca, Ph.D.

Teaching children to care about others early in life grows as a result of the development of emotional intelligence (Goleman, 1995). Emotional intelligence, according to Goleman, is the ability "to rein in emotional impulse; to read another's innermost feelings: [and] to handle relationships smoothly" (p. xiii, 1995). When emotional intelligence is nurtured from an early age, it enables children to deal with situations involving caring moments. As children are exposed to caring events, and as they are encouraged to "imitate what they see, children develop a repertoire of empathic response" (Goleman, p. 99, 1995). One approach for cultivation emotional intelligence and increasing caring behaviors in children is through the use of stories.

How many times have you heard the children at your center tell their own stories or reenact the stories of others? Frequently, I'm sure. In fact, many cultures around the world have a long history of using fables, folk tales, fairy tales, or nursery rhymes to teach children about goodness to others through the actions of the characters in stories. Today the richness, quality, availability, and variety in stores, such as Cinderella, The Three Bears, and more recently The Lion King, encourage and support this tradition.

How to Select a Story
We generally select books for children that 1) are at the child's developmental level; 2) have a well-developed plot; 3) are skillfully illustrated; and 4) portray colorful and appealing characters. To encourage and support character education, the books should emphasize caring characters who help others, show compassion, and share with others. Peter's Chair, by Ezra Jack Keats (1981), is a good example. This book's sharing theme emerges as Peter learns that he can share his things with his new baby sister because she can use them, and he has outgrown them.

To determine whether a book can be used to teach children about caring, read it to determine the extent to which the characters share objects, time, and opportunities; engage in fair play; do their share; show compassion; consider others; donate or give; help others; keep promises; fulfill commitments; tell the truth; show respect; or offer love and affection.

When these caring behaviors are explicit and meaningful to young children, and woven into an interesting plot, the learning experience becomes real. In Peter's Chair, three-, four-, and five-year-olds can understand Peter's problem with sharing because they have probably had real-life experiences similar to his. The book helps to facilitate this understanding because the wonderful illustrations and text clearly present Peter's problem. In a predictable fashion, the theme unfolds and builds the story to climax-Peter solves his problem by choosing to share.

The Approach
In addition to selecting high-quality stories, the literature approach to teaching caring is effective when consideration is given to group size, preparation for reading, and active participation.

1.       Group Size. Young children learn best in groups that do not include more than five or six children. This small setting gives the children a sense of connectedness and community. The children, seated either at a table or on the floor, can talk with each other, see the book's illustrations clearly, hear the dialogue, and interact, verbally and non-verbally, with other members of the group.


2.       Preparation for Reading. Children need to bring their own experiences to the story. Invite children to share situations in their own lives that relate to the kinds of caring behaviors illustrated by the characters before reading the book. Before reading Peter's Chair, for example, allow the children to tell about how they feel about sharing their things with others. Ask the children if they have had to give the toys they no longer use to a younger brother or sister. Is this hard to do? How does it feel to share? After this brief discussion, show the children pictures from the story and begin to read by explaining that in this story they will meet a boy named Peter and discover how he learned to share. Always give the children an opportunity to reflect after reading by encouraging the children's comments, questions, and opinions. If the discussion wanders, as it often does with preschoolers, gently return the discussion focus to the caring theme.


3.       Active Participation. Listening to a good story read expressively is one of the delights of childhood. The young child's preferred learning style, however, is active engagement. If we want children to internalize the caring behaviors demonstrated by the characters, one or more active learning experiences should immediately follow the reading. This gives the children an opportunity to use what they have heard. Through these active experiences children experiment and invent their won approaches to the expression of caring. Some suggestions for encouraging active participation are listed below.


    • Retell a story using felt board pieces, puppets, or prop boxes. It is particularly important for children to retell the parts of the story where characters behaved in a caring manner.

    • Role-play several different characters in a story. This develops the children's ability to take the perspective of others.

    • Use pictures from story books and search for characters that demonstrate the caring behaviors found in the story they heard.

    • Read from memory dialogue from the text using voice inflections which demonstrate the feeling the character is portraying. This works well as a choral response.

    • Encourage the children to recreate a character's caring behavior using art materials, such as clay, paints, paper construction, or drawings.

    • Use the language experience approach to dictate their own story about caring for others. This can then be illustrated, read several times, laminated, and placed in the library corner.

    • Learn songs and finger plays that relate to the kinds of caring behaviors demonstrated in the story. New words that relate to a story's theme can be written to familiar songs and rhymes.

    • Make a caring calendar. Invite the children to draw a picture showing a caring behavior for each day of the week or month of the year.

The literature approach to teaching character education is not expensive; does not take a great amount of planning; and uses simple materials. Yet this easy-to-adopt approach to teaching fosters an environment that nurtures mutual respect, consideration, and thoughtfulness between children and the adults that teach and care for them. When stories such as Peter's Chair, or any of those listed below, are added to a caring classroom culture, the more likely caring behaviors will become part of the child's social repertoire.

Marilyn E. Mecca, Ph.D., is associate professor of Early Childhood Education at Lander University in Greenwood, South Carolina.

Goleman, D. (1995).Emotional intelligence.New York: Bantam Books.

Keats, E. J. (1981).Peter's Chair. New York: Harper & Row.

Books With Caring Themes
Below is a list of children's books with prominent caring themes.

  • Farmer Duck by Martin Weddell and Helen Oxenbury. The theme is doing one's share. Duck does all the work on the farm while the lazy farmer sleeps. The other farm animals help Duck solve his problem with the lazy farmer. (Waddell, M. & Oxenbury, H. (1991).Farmer Duck. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press.

  • Frog and Toad Are Friends by Arnold Lobel. The theme is consideration. In a series of short stories Frog and Toad thoughtfully consider the feelings of each other over matters such as Toad's lost button and mail for Toad. (Lobel, A. (1970).Frog and toad are friends. New York: Harper & Row.)

  • George and Martha One Fine Day by James Marshall. In this delightful story George and Martha sometimes say or do things to each other that could hurt their friendship. They learn from these episodes how to care for each other in more appropriate ways. (Marshall, J. (1978).George and Martha one fine day. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.)

  • Happy Birthday, Moon by Frank Asch. The theme is giving. Bear wants to celebrate the moon's birthday by giving the moon a present. It happens that the moon also has a present for Bear's birthday. (Asch, F. (1982).Happy birthday, moon. New York: Aladdin Paperbacks.)

  • Little Bear by Else Holmelund Minarik. The theme is love and affection. In a series of stories about Little Bear and Mother Bear, Mother Bear consistently considers Little Bear's feelings by simply supporting and engaging in his play. (Minarik, E.H. (1957).Little Bear. New York: Harper & Row.)

  • Ruff by Jane Hissey. The theme is compassion. A woolly dog named Ruff is abandoned but he finds a group of friends who give him both a birthday party and his name. (Hissey, J. (1994).Ruff. New York: Random House.)

  • Swimmy by Leo Lionni. The theme is cooperation. A big fish threatens a school of little fish until Swimmy shows them how they can work together to chase the big fish away. (Lionni, L. (1964).Swimmy. New York: Pantheon.)

  • The Mitten by Alvin Tresselt. The theme is sharing. In this folk tale, a young boy drops a mitten on the forest floor and several different animals find warmth and comfort from the bitter cold by climbing inside. (Tresselt, A. (1964).The mitten. New York: Scholastic, Inc.)

  • Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown. The theme is love. When little bunny decides to run away, mother assures little bunny that wherever he runs she will run too. (Brown, M.W. (1972).Runaway Bunny. New York: Harper & Row.)

  • Two Good Friends by Judy Delton. The theme is giving. Duck doesn't cook very well and Bear cannot tidy a house. Bear cooks for Duck and Duck cleans Bear's house. (Delton, J. (1974).Two good friends. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc.)