This is not a riddle. It is a true story that starts with a question: what do you get when you combine advocacy for awareness and empathy, powerful children’s literature, and technology?

Having just wrapped up a conference presentation about how technology can support social and emotional development at the National Association for the Education of Young Children (in Orlando, FL) I feel this story is appropriate. And it’s one that I’ve been wanting to (re)tell for some time (it’s not my story, but I’m connecting it to work in my field). Let me introduce you to a young girl, Mary Cate. She’s the daughter of a friend of mine from high school, Kerry, and her husband, Chris. Their life story is one example of the empowering possibilities that can result from combining advocacy for awareness and empathy, children’s literature, and technology.

I am not going to share their full story here (if you are interested you can follow it on Facebook, Twitter, or through their website/blog); what you need to know is that Mary Cate was born with Apert Syndrome. At the time of her birth, Kerry reported that she and Chris felt there was not enough information for them as parents and that few people in their communities had access to useful information about this craniofacial condition, caused by a spontaneous genetic mutation, and its impact on the child, and their family. Between doctor appointments, consultations, surgeries, and an emotional roller coaster ride the family started to learn more about Apert Syndrome.

In their search for information, Kerry and Chris became aware of a children’s novel, Wonder, written by author RJ Palacio. Wonder tells the story of Auggie, a 5th grade boy with a craniofacial condition and his struggle to fit in at a new mainstream school because his peers can’t get past his physical appearance. It is a story of transformation — Auggie transforms from ostracized to accepted and welcomed and some of the 5th grade classmates transform from bullies to empathetic and kind friends to Auggie.

In a phone interview with Kerry, I came to find out that the book was so powerful to her because Auggie was like Mary Cate in that they share the same challenge. Rudine Sims Bishop (1990), and many other scholars of children’s literature, suggest that some books offer “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors” in which children can see themselves, allow others to see in to cultures that are not their own, and allow for “stepping into others’ worlds.” Auggie served as a “mirror” for Mary Cate, and Kerry saw Wonder as a potential “window” for others to look through to help others see some of the challenges their family was to encounter as they raised a daughter with malformation of her face, head, hands, and feet.

Children’s media is one way by which parents and children can introduce children to the idea that all people are different, and that some look and behave differently. Fred Rogers chose to share that message in may ways with his audience, using televison, printed media, and toys as tools. In his work Fred demonstrated that media can function as one tool available to spread the message that differences are OK and natural and that we ought to be kind, to all people:

When we see someone who looks or behaves differently from what’s familiar to us, it’s possible to feel a little bit shy, scared, curious, or awkward. I know how much I’ve struggled to look with my heart and not with just my eyes when I see someone who is obviously different from me. If adults have such a challenge, imagine what a challenge that can be for children. (Fred Rogers, Let’s Talk About It: Extraordinary Friends, 2000).

After worrying about the challenges she was going to encounter and then bringing Mary Cate out in the world, Kerry realized that children and adults did feel shy, scared, curious and awkward around Mary Cate. So, Kerry decided to become an advocate for Mary Cate — to educate the community about Mary Cate’s differences and to promote empathy and awareness.

Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective. It’s when you place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling. Empathy is known to increase prosocial (helping) behaviors. Kerry wanted other children — at the parks, in schools, at grocery stores — to be aware of Mary Cate’s feelings when no one invited her to play because she looked different and Kerry wanted those children to choose to engage with Mary Cate, to confront the difference, and to learn to accept Mary Cate for the charismatic young child that she is.

The Lynch family is using a quote (“When given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind”) from Wonder to help them spread awareness and build empathy…and this is where the alluded to ‘transformative power of technology’ piece comes in to their story. (Well, actually, there are sort of three inter-related technology pieces. First, Kerry & Chris used the Internet to acquire information about Apert Syndrome, to research their options for treatment and therapy, and to find a network of families with children who have special needs, particularly those with Apert Syndrome, to empower themselves to learn as much as they could about Apert Syndrome…but that happened much earlier than where I left off.)

Kerry started a blog platform to spread her message. Schools caught on through Kerry’s personal network and started to invite her to come to speak about differences and empathy. She even brought Mary Cate with her sometimes. Kerry requested students read and discuss Wonder prior to her visit so students would have background knowledge about Apert Syndrome. In these ways, students got to see through the window, step through the glass door, and #choosekind.

In addition, Kerry created social media outlets to further spread the message and to invite participation from a larger network and did the message ever spread — so far that the entire city of Chicago sponsored a Choose Kind Day full on with 19 digital billboards from the Chicago Public Library and support from Alderman Matt O’Shea. Beyond that, though, the social media documents children’s developing awareness and expressions of empathy. If you just poke around there, you see kids hosting ice cream socials and lemonade stands, selling toys, running races all to benefit Mary Cate, and the campaign for Apert Syndrome. In addition classrooms and teachers are taking pictures of bulletin boards, letters to Mary Cate, and a range of other projects and sharing them by posting to a Facebook wall or tweeting to @MyMaryCate or #choosekind.

Like Fred Rogers, Mary Cate and Kerry and the students who are fortunate enough to engage in the #choosekind mission are finding “It’s exhilarating to find that the barriers that seem to separate us from other people begin to vanish when we take the time to get to know those people. That’s the way it is with real friends.” (Fred Rogers, Let’s Talk About It: Extraordinary Friends). And that’s what can happen when technology is utilized as a tool for advocacy and building awareness and empathy.

Originally published on Blogger