Want to teach your kids empathy? Read more fiction.
Humans aren’t as good as we should be in our capacity to empathize with feelings and thoughts of others, be they humans or other animals on Earth. So maybe part of our formal education should be training in empathy. Imagine how different the world would be if, in fact, that were ‘reading, writing, arithmetic, empathy.’
- Neil deGrasse Tyson
Reading stories to our kids comes naturally to most parents from the start. Board books lead to story books, before those lead to chapter books. “Stories are good for kids,” we say.
If that’s true, why don’t we read more fiction for ourselves?
Every Parent’s Wish
In the quiet moments of my life, my thoughts are often drawn to my three children. I’m certain this is a common phenomenon of parenthood. I ponder a variety of things in these moments, from interactions with them where I could have chosen a different/better response, to how they handled a conflict with their brothers, or instruction from my wife or me.
Often, I find myself thinking about them as adults. Specifically, how they will choose to live life and treat others. In these moments, we parents often paint an elaborate picture of the kind of adults we wish to see our children become. This includes the details of their lives, like career and family. It also includes a picture of what these tiny little people will be like: how they will love and be loved; how they will care for and receive the caring of others; how they will perceive the world and their place in it.
I suspect that all of us paint a picture where our children are kind, well-adjusted adults who care for others and are equally able to put the needs of another first as to consider themselves. We want them to be able to appreciate people who talk, think, act and are different from them.
In short, we desire for our children to possess that often-talked-about quality: empathy.
This plays out in much of how we instruct our children.
“Marco, please don’t hit. How would you feel if David hit you?”
“Trini, your sister wants to be included in your game. It makes her sad and angry when you don’t let her join in.”
“Matthew, when you throw your food on the floor, it makes me want to pick it up and dump it on your head. Then I feel guilty for having such terrible thoughts.”
I may be alone in that last one.
The Power of Story
In recent years, the idea that fiction helps develop empathy is well-trod ground. The claim — backed by a handful of independent studies — is that good fiction places us in the shoes of unfamiliar characters and helps us understand other points of view. In 2013, Neuroscientists at Carnegie Mellon University discovered that reading fiction taps in the same brain networks as real-life experience. A 2016 study at the University of Toronto reinforced this and noted that, “when reading novels about different cultures and races different to their own, participants were seen to develop greater empathy towards those cultures and races.”
The data are in: by exposing our kids to characters, people and places different from the familiar, they learn to understand another person’s experience. Just as important, they can identify with those experiences, even in spite of myriad differences.
Not just any kind of fiction…
With all apologies to a certain cotton-brief-clad caped crusader, the type of fiction one reads does matter. In every study cited above, researchers noted that while “literary” or “character-driven” fiction amped up our empathy, “popular” or “genre” fiction did not. Researchers surmise that these works do little to develop empathy because the characters are “poorly-developed and predictable.” They don’t activate our brains to seek understanding, and serve as little more than entertainment vehicles.
Entertainment has its place, of course. But as parents we can sometimes fall into the trap of reading our kids twaddle in the belief that “reading is reading.” I get it, and the boys and I love reading books that make us laugh at the sheer ridiculousness on the page. But we try to overbalance these books with a steady diet of books that evoke an emotional response in our children. Stories with risk and danger, joy and anguish, victory and defeat. Stories with characters that draw you in and encourage you to seek understanding.
…and not just for kids
I’m guessing I’ve not lost many of you with the claim that our kids should be exposed to more “good stories.” But I believe strongly that it doesn’t end there. As parents, we need to expose ourselves to more of the same kinds of stories that we wish for our children to engross themselves in. After all, the research cited above was focused on fiction’s ability to increase empathy in humans of all ages, not just the smaller ones.
Many folks I’ve talked to over the years claim they “don’t have time” to read fiction. This seems especially common in technology, where I’ve spent my career. I empathize with this perspective. Many of us in this field have demanding jobs that sometimes call for longer days. When we do have time to read, we feel pulled to pick up books about technology or leadership or business as a way to “keep up.” For many of us, choosing a novel, instead feels like the easy way out.
But maybe we’d make a different choice if we changed our perspective about the role a good story can play in our growth as human beings. What if we looked at fiction as the best form of self-help available on the market? Or, at least, one of the most effective ways to train ourselves to be kinder, gentler, more compassionate humans? The parent is one of the strongest role models our children will ever have. What if we looked at fiction as a way to help ensure that we, through our own actions, provide the best examples possible from which to draw?
I’ve gone through a lot of periods in my career where I passed over the novels and went straight to the technical and business volumes. But in recent years, I’ve noticed that interspersing some great stories in my reading pile has not only had a strong positive impact on my passion and creativity, but has helped me become more empathetic, both for and to my children.
In closing, I want to share a couple of great stories that we’ve come across, recently — A few that I’ve read with my older two boys, as well as some I’ve recently read, myself. I highly recommend every single one. And if you have some that you love, feel free to share them below!
- The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo
- Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh by Robert C. O’Brien
- Matilda by Roald Dahl
- The BFG by Roald Dahl
- Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
- The Butter Battle Book by Dr. Seuss
What about you? What books have you read for yourself or to your kids that you love for their ability to “come alive” or create an emotional response?
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