Want to teach your kids empathy? Read more fiction.

Brandon Satrom
Jul 18, 2017 · 6 min read
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Photo By Andrew Branch | Unsplash

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.

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.

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.”

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.

…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.

Some recommendations

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!

For kids

For adults

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Breadboardeaux

The Blog for Carrot Pants Studios

Brandon Satrom

Written by

Founder of Carrot Pants Studios | writer, programmer, maker & optimistic nay-sayer | Author of books and speaker at places | ♘

Breadboardeaux

The Blog for Carrot Pants Studios

Brandon Satrom

Written by

Founder of Carrot Pants Studios | writer, programmer, maker & optimistic nay-sayer | Author of books and speaker at places | ♘

Breadboardeaux

The Blog for Carrot Pants Studios

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