In this special guest blog post for World Kindness Day, Founder and Director of ThinkKind Valerie Wangnet explores some helpful ways that parents can nurture empathy and compassion in their children through the power of reading.
“Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another and feeling with the heart of another.” – Alfred Adler
We already know that reading offers a wealth of benefits to young children – from flinging open the doors to academic success, to igniting their creativity and imagination.
But did you know that reading can also help develop your child’s empathy?
Psychologists from the New School for Social Research in New York have found that reading literary fiction enhances the ability to detect and understand the emotions of others – a crucial skill in navigating complex social relationships.
The conclusion was rather simple, as one of the psychologists David Comer Kidd put it, “What great writers do is to turn you into the writer. In literary fiction, the incompleteness of the characters turns your mind to trying to understand the minds of others.”
So how can we foster empathy in our kids through the power of reading?
1. Choose books with relatable characters
Look for stories with young protagonists that your child can relate to. It doesn’t matter if the character is a goose, a bear or a beetle – if your child shares a similar background, situation or personality trait as the main character (e.g. starting a new school or welcoming a new baby brother or sister), it makes it much easier for them to put themselves in their shoes.
2. Explore foreign worlds and adventures
It’s often difficult to imagine a world that’s different from our own, even for grownups. By opening a new book and introducing your child to a new place, a different time period or a different group of people, you are helping them to understand the complexity and diversity of the world, and also to recognise the common traits and experiences that we all share universally as human beings.
3. Look for stories with multiple characters
Reading a story with different types of characters, especially ones that let different characters tell their own version of the events in a story (e.g. Frog and Toad) lets your child observe multiple perspectives and how they behave and interact with one another. It allows them to see that every individual has a story, as well as the importance of listening and understanding different perspectives.
4. Read aloud and take turns reading
One of the most powerful ways of teaching children empathy is by teaching them to listen. By reading aloud to your child and encouraging them to be attentive, respectful and patient listeners, you’re encouraging them to carry over those skills in real-life situations. Pam Allyn, Executive Director of LitLife, says, “The art of listening is no small thing. The leaning in, the embrace of story, the openness to a story washing in, are all ways for the young child to practice the art of deep listening.”
And of course, when it’s your child’s turn to read aloud to you, pay them the same attentiveness and patience you’ve asked of them.
5. Reflect together
After you’ve read a story together with your child, let it sink in overnight or over a few days. Then begin a conversation about the characters, their actions, decisions, and the outcomes. Ask questions that encourage them to think critically about the characters’ feelings and emotions, such as, “How do you think the frog felt when his pond was flooded?” “Why do you think the duck was angry at the fox for eating her eggs?” “How do you think Little John felt after he destroyed his mum’s flowers?” Stories for children that end in moral discussion points suggest some helpful questions to get important conversations going.
Remember to try not to tell your child that their opinions and understanding of the story is wrong or silly. Instead, opt to encourage more conversation and to find out more together.
After you and your child have explored a whole new range of characters, worlds and stories together, you’ll soon be able to relate them to various situations you see in the world. By not only reading a story but also learning to analyse it, your child will be more equipped to deal with real-life scenarios where a deeper level of empathy, compassion and understanding will go a long way in helping them make good and thoughtful decisions.