One of the wonderful benefits of reading fiction, studies have begun to show, is that it helps cultivate empathy. By reading and experiencing the interior life of the characters on the page, we are reminded that not everyone thinks and acts like us. We are reminded that not everyone has been as lucky as we have.
It also happens that fiction—the best fiction anyway-—teaches us this empathy by way of specific advice and admonition. Perhaps you remember Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, where he tells a young Scout that “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” This is why we have our kids read these books. This is why we read together.
But it’s actually The Great Gatsby that more perfectly combines the empathetic qualities of fiction, quotable prescriptions, and, of course, timeless fatherly advice. It comes to us from Fitzgerald via Nick Carroway:
“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’”
We need our kids to understand this. That’s why they have to read Mockingbird and Gatsby and every other great novel. It’s also something we have to explicitly remind them, the way the character’s father did in the book. Most importantly, it’s something we have to model ourselves.
If we want them to be understanding, to not be critical or unfair, we need to make sure that we ourselves are showing them what that looks like. We need to make sure that we remember what it was like to be a kid ourselves and teach and appreciate and understand accordingly.