Teaching Your Teens Empathy with Help From YA Authors T Cooper and Allison Glock-Cooper
T Cooper and Allison Glock-Cooper are the authors of Changers Book One: Drew, the first of a four-part young adult book series, as well as the founders of Wearechangers.org, an empathy project aimed at teens. We recently had a chance to sit down and talk with the authors about why empathy is so important to teen lives, and how to help our teens achieve it. Read their advice below and leave your thoughts in the comments for a chance to win a copy of Changers!
What is the Changers series about, and how did you come up with the concept?
We were literally sitting on a blanket in the park talking about our 12 and 13-year-old daughters, and how they seemed to wake up as different people day to day. And then we wondered: What if that actually happened? We decided to take the journey we all go through as we find our way to adulthood, stumbling through various phases and personalities, and make it literal.
Enter Changers, an ancient race of humans who transform into a new person at the start of every high school year. After graduation, Changers choose which version of themselves they will live as forever—but they can't go back to who they were before the changes began. There is a fun fantasy element to the series, but it is fundamentally a grounded approach, focusing on the humor, heartbreak, and horror-show that is high school.
What do you hope that your readers take away from reading this book?
Well, first and foremost, we want readers to enjoy the ride. To laugh. To cry. To reexamine some notions they might have. To find themselves in our characters in unexpected ways. We also want folks to consider just how much outside appearances change the way we are treated (and mistreated) in the world. We believe every person contains multitudes, that we are all a little bit of everything. Nobody is just the "jock," the "geek," the "cheerleader." One of the things we play with in the series is how love and friendship and those authentic soul connections transcend the physical and external. Which makes it sound really woo-woo, but it isn’t. It’s basically a love story where the main characters learn to love each other as several different people. Which, incidentally, is everyone’s story: over lifetimes, we all change so much.
What do you hope to accomplish with the WeAreChangers website, and how do you hope that teens will interact with it?
We were inspired to launch the WeAreChangers.org site by the "meta" subject of the book series, which is empathy. So we'd like for the site be a forum for people of all ages (including young adults and the people who care about them), to get thinking and talking about what it might feel like to be another person, to see life from different folks’ perspectives—to "walk in somebody else's shoes." We want the site to grow into an ample resource for teens, parents, teachers, librarians--a place where "real-life" Changers can feel at home and intersect with others who have similar concerns, interests, and approaches to the world.
An exciting part of the site/project is UNSELFIES, which we hope will inspire young people to turn their cameras around, to look outside of themselves a little more regularly, and in photos to try to capture what they and others are feeling or experiencing—instead of simply what we look like on the outside. So we're hoping teens will upload Unselfies to the site's gallery, and the most inspired or awesome Unselfie each month will win a free signed copy of the book. And given that “selfie” was recently selected the word of the year for 2013, it wouldn’t be the worst if “unselfie” became the word of 2014!
Why do you think empathy is such an important concept for teens?
Some studies have suggested that in this age of constant electronic interconnectivity, empathy is decreasing. When you aren't face to face with other humans, but are only communicating via the internet or wirelessly, you lose that essential component of witnessing the reaction and emotion of the person you are communicating with. We've all seen the worst consequences of this breakdown in intimacy. And for kids, the fall-out can be particularly damaging and scary. We believe everyone has the capacity for empathy (well, maybe not the Kardashians…), that it is a muscle that is atrophying in our culture—but it need not. Reading fiction, for example, has been shown to increase empathy, among other fine side effects.
What do you think is an effective way to teach teens to be more empathetic?
Reading! (No, really.) Less time in front of screens of all sorts. Volunteering. Travel. Art. Music. Nature, nature, nature. Anything and everything that reminds not just teens—but all of us—who we are as humans, of our responsibility to each other, from the local to the global. Tolerance is a vital and necessary thing. But empathy—truly understanding and sharing the feelings of another—is what allows for love, kindness, and generosity to flourish. And when that happens, everybody operates at their best.