7 November 2017
Reading Fiction Improves Empathy in Children
When children read a book, it is for the colorful pictures and funny characters. However, what if there is more to gain from a fictional book rather than just hearing a delightful story with creative pictures? Well, there is more to gain. More specifically, children can gain an array of benefits from reading fictional books at an early age, but it is those benefits that ultimately tie into one very important cognitive skill called empathy. As a whole, there are steps and techniques that can be utilized when children read fictional books that encourage children to work on certain skills that will ultimately play a role in the development of empathy.
To begin with, the term empathy refers to a person being able to put themselves in the shoes of another person, or to be able to understand how someone may be feeling. In further detail, Jean Decety, a professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Chicago and the University of Chicago Medicine, and Jason M. Cowell, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Chicago, explained the different processes that contribute to the overarching skill of empathy. These facets of empathy include emotional sharing (the motivation to care and help another person that is in distress), empathetic concern (wanting to care for others who are vulnerable or in need), and perspective-taking (the ability to put oneself in the mind of someone else to imagine what that person is thinking or feeling). From this, the complex range of empathy make learning this skill essential for social interactions and relationships. One of these facets of empathy that can be developed through the use of fictional books is perspective-taking.
Furthermore, perspective-taking is an important skill that children can begin to develop by reading fictional books, and this in turn improves their empathy. It is crucial to learn perspective-taking as children are not innately born with social value and are profoundly egocentric and highly sensitive to negative social norms (Spruce). By learning perspective-taking children can become more in tune with how someone else is feeling. Additionally, a reading program called RedRover Readers targets children in third and fourth grade as children at this age are developing complex perspective-taking skills that are needed to take the perspectives of the characters, whether that be non-human or human characters, in stories and understand that their perspective may differ from that of their peers (“Frequently Asked Questions”). Targeting children at an age best fit for developing perspective-taking skills is an excellent tactic to create a basis for empathy development. Ultimately, the development of perspective-taking benefits children when it comes to understanding how others may feel, otherwise known as being empathetic.
Although there is a wide variety of books for children to read not just any book will allow children to practice utilizing empathy. Finding the right book is a crucial first step to beginning this process therefore it is important to know that the most effective genre for children to improve their empathy is fiction. To give a better idea behind this, a professor in the department of human development and applied Psychology at the University of Toronto named Keith Oatley stated that he believes “. . . the reason fiction but not non-fiction has the effect of improving empathy is because fiction is primarily about selves interacting with other selves in the social world” (Flood). Also, researchers at Emory University in Atlanta, US, explained that fiction tricks our brains into thinking we are a part of the story, and that the empathy we feel for characters wires our brains to have the same sensitivity towards real people (McKearney and Mears). Secondly, it is best to look for books that have well-rounded, believable characters because even if the characters are doing terrible things the story should help children to understand the motivations of those characters (McKearney and Mears). This strategy will help children gain more of an understanding on how certain emotions drive a person to act a certain way. Lastly, having a diversity in the fictional stories children read allow them to relate to more wide scale issues, and develop empathy for those who are not necessarily of similar backgrounds. In other words, choosing a book with some diversity offers children the opportunity to experience a more diverse world (“A Book with Diversity”). Overall, diversity in books prepare children to become more understanding of those around them that had different upbringings.
A key component of children reading fiction is the opportunity it gives them to step into a character’s shoes. By doing this, a child can imagine what it is like to go through situations in the mindset of the character. According to Hannah Spruce, who works at VoiceIn Journal and has a Master’s in Contemporary Literature, “Reading helps expose children to scenarios, experiences, and beliefs outside their own experience.” Due to the exposure to these aspects, it is important for children to practice the ability to empathize for someone in a real-life situation.
To reinforce the idea of transporting themselves into a character’s mindset, engaging children in conversation allows them to make connections and empathize with feelings that were expressed by a character in a story. To give an idea of how to create such a conversation, Psychologist Michele Borba suggests using three steps that can help develop empathy skills in children by reading. The first step is to ask children “what if” questions that make them think about how they would respond to a certain event that occurred in a story if it were to happen to them. Next, ask children “how would you feel” questions to draw on any similarities between them and the situations that happened in a book. Lastly, encourage children to think about the “you” instead of “me” concept (Rymanowicz). This will give children an opportunity to recognize and reflect on things that occurred in a story as if they were in that specific character’s situation.
To showcase the impact that engaging in conversation has on a child’s empathy, an experimental study was conducted with 110 school kids at the age of 7 to test whether their empathy would improve after reading fictional stories. After two months, the kids that were asked to engage in conversations about the emotional content of the stories showed greater advances in their empathy than the kids asked to create drawings about the stories (Dewar). The act of analyzing and discussing emotional content was proven to be a far more powerful tool in the improvement of empathy, demonstrating the importance of this factor when reading to a child. Empathy development is not imagining what a scene or a character would look like in a story, but rather asking questions and making a child think about the content of a story.
In addition, the vocabulary used to express certain emotions that a character feels enables children to learn unfamiliar words that describe a specific emotion. This in turn gives a child the necessary knowledge to make the connection between a certain feeling and a specific word to describe that feeling. According to Miranda McKearney and Sarah Mears, who are both involved in an organization focused on making a difference in children’s lives through empathy and literature, “If children lack language to share feelings, it’s hard for them to understand each other and communicate effectively.” From this, working to expand the vocabulary of a child through fictional books will allow for a better understanding of the emotions other people may be feeling.
Furthermore, children’s books can potentially be used as a tool to teach children early on the idea of acceptance through understanding. To support this in terms of a possible long-term impact, Ellen Oh, the CEO and president of the organization We Need Diverse Books, stated that, “If you don’t start that young in children, we end up where we are now, where we see hate, violence, and things that are erupting around us” (Mitchell). Based on this, the lack of understanding between people could possibly have different results if empathy is to be introduced through books during childhood.
As social interactions are a part of everyday life, helping to develop empathy in children is greatly beneficial for not only the children, but for those around them. Beginning with the improvement of vocabulary and perspective-taking, children can apply what they learn from reading fictional books to real life situations. Also, engaging children in conversations about the fictional books they read aides in enhancing their empathy as well, and knowing the right questions to ask can make all the difference. Ultimately, reading fictional books during childhood leads to the development of empathy, which can greatly influence how a child goes about viewing someone else and the situation that person may be in.
Clark, Carrie. “How to Teach Perspective-Taking to Children.” Speech and Language Kids, https://www.speechandlanguagekids.com/how-to-teach-perspective-talking-to-children/. Accessed 24 Oct. 2017.
Decety, Jean, and Jason M. Cowell. “Friends or Foes: Is Empathy Necessary for Moral Behavior?” Perspectives on Psychological Science: A Journal of the Association for Psychological Science 9.4 (2014): 525–537. PMC, NCBI, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4241340/.
Flood, Alison. “Reading Fiction ‘Improves Empathy,’ Study Finds.” The Guardian, 7 Sept. 2011, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/sep/07/reading-fiction-empathy-study.
“Frequently Asked Questions.” RedRover, https://redrover.org/faq/?question=readers. Accessed 23 Oct. 2017.
McKearney, Miranda and Sarah Mears. “Lost for Words? How Reading Can Teach Children Empathy.” The Guardian, 13 May 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2015/may/13/reading-teach-children-empathy.
Mitchell, Robert. “Learning Diversity, One Story at a Time.” Harvard Gazette, 11 Sept. 2017, https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2017/09/harvard-panelists-say-childrens-books-can-teach-empathy-as-inclusion-not-replacement/.
Rymanowicz, Kylie. “Children and Empathy: Reading to Learn Empathy.” Michigan State University Extension, 3 Apr. 2017, http://msue.anr.msu.edu/news/children_and_empathy_reading_to_learn_empathy.
Spruce, Hannah. “Can Reading Teach Young People Empathy and Tolerance?” PsychCentral, 13 Jan. 2016, https://pro.psychcentral.com/can-reading-teach-young-people-empathy-and-tolerance/0010738.html.