“If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. 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.” -Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird
Even the most optimistic people can agree that the world today is in need of help. And while there are a million diverse things we can (and should!) focus on when it comes to teaching our children how to be successful and live a good life, there is one thing in particular that should be at the top of every parent’s list: the importance of empathy.
Defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another,” empathy is the fuel behind progress, compassion, tolerance, and innovation. Without empathy, society can’t move forward.
But how exactly do you teach empathy to children?
Lead by example? Yes. Answer questions with patience and ease? Of course. But even more than that, children can discover the meaning and truth of empathy through reading.
According to research done at the University of Toronto, people who read more, especially fiction, score much higher on tests that gauge interpersonal skills. When asked about the results, Keith Oatley, the cognitive psychologist behind the study, says, “People who read more fiction were better at empathy and understanding others.”
But why? What is it about books, and the messages within, that create a direct path to a more empathetic world?
“When we read about other people,” Oatley explains, “we can imagine ourselves into their position… That enables us to better understand people, better cooperate with them.”
The importance of focusing on reading stories with your child, then, becomes even more paramount. In a world where it still very much feels like there is work to be done, especially in areas of tolerance and acceptance, something as simple as fueling your child’s love of reading could make a real difference.
And while we would never discourage any child from reading a book, research shows that in order to get the best results for teaching empathy the books need to be character-focused, rather than action-based. More “literary” books require readers to “get inside the head” of characters, placing themselves into the character’s world in order to understand what they feel and believe in.
We have to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. We have to look at the world the way they see it, so we can understand experiences outside of our own. Learning how to do this, and why it’s important, is the foundation of developing empathy.
Head to the bookstore. Go to the library. Discover new genres, new characters, new stories. Opening a book is just the beginning of the change your little ones can create and nurture.