Category Archives: Reading

How Fiction Helps a Child to Develop Empathy

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Anyone who has read to a child has noticed the range of emotions that cross the child’s face as he listens raptly to a story. Worldwide, scientific researchers in the field of neuroscience have uncovered irrefutable proof that those who read fiction regularly develop a deeper understanding of others, which leads to the ability to see situations from different points of view – the quality of empathy.

Of particular interest is a study conducted in 2010 by Dr. Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University, using preschool children. He and his colleagues discovered a direct corollary between how much a child is read to and the child’s Theory of Mind. Theory of Mind (ToM) is the ability of an individual to understand his or her own mental states, and to realize that others also have minds with perhaps different beliefs and desires. It is believed that ToM is an innate quality in human beings that generally takes many years of social interaction to develop. Having a keen sense of ToM is an abstract quality, and while children learn more readily with their senses, understand the concrete, and live in the present, reading about other’s thoughts and feelings helps a child to take the leap from the actual to the abstract.

We laugh at characters who are silly, but we also feel concern for characters who are sad, lonely, afraid, or hurt. A child, while reading, “practices” these feelings, acquiring an early knowledge of compassion. In a book such as The Rainbow Fish, children are exposed to the idea of sharing versus not sharing. How does it make you feel when you share? When someone shares with you? When someone doesn’t share with you? Books can evoke powerful emotions that children can safely and securely contend with, creating a sensitivity to emotional nuance often missed in the heat of the argument over whose turn it is.

Stories help a child to learn that sad feelings can be soothed, that happy feelings can be shared, and that these feelings are universal. We all celebrate, over and over again as we reread, that Harold, wielding only a purple crayon, will figure out all by himself how to get home safely, that the little blue engine will make it up and over the hill, and that wicked witches can be defeated by little girls in sparkly shoes.

Words Connect Us

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The phrase “Use your words” in relation to encouraging children to express themselves has been around long enough to have become an iconic idiom. Normally it is used in conjunction with reminding a child that hitting, biting, throwing one’s self on the floor, etc….are not effective ways to communicate. But have you ever thought about saying to a child who is behaving properly,“Use your words”?

This blog is about the importance of establishing a love of literature early in life and the connection that reading has to the developing mind. Curiosity, creative thinking, imagination, attention span, and even social skills are all heightened through early exposure to books. Words connect us. Conversations, whether with a 3 year old or an 80 year old, inspire us and help us to see from different perspectives.

After all, what are books if not voices on the page…voices communicating stories to anyone who cares to listen. The author’s voice may tell stories of fairies, baby animals, princesses, dragon fighting, how to make a kite, or what lives under the sea…whether fiction or non-fiction, a book explores new thoughts that expand the heart as well as the mind.

All day long children are bombarded with peer pressure, expectations to perform, to obey, to excel, to be quiet when they feel like talking, to talk when they feel like being quiet. They are enticed with glossy packaging and advertisements designed to convince them that happiness lies in material possessions. Reading is free of all that. A book takes a child to a simpler, less intrusive  world. It sets their mind to dreaming and makes them smart.

What a beautiful gift to give a child, and it is as simple as using your words.