Tag Archives: empathy

The Importance of Reading Stories to Your Child During the Pandemic

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Donna Burke Esgro

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Reading, thoughtful reading, is more important than ever for children during this time of social distancing and on-line learning.

Deep reading is the giving up of oneself to a story, falling into the character’s lives, sharing their hopes, fears, successes, and failures. Whether the characters are wizards, orphans, bullies, hedgehogs, or heroes, we experience their trials as universal.

Early childhood experts and social scientists agree that reading fiction (from picture books to classic novels) helps build Theory of Mind. TOM is the ability to understand the desires, intents, and beliefs of another. To be able to identify with another is a key cognitive skill that begins developing early in life.

Humans, as the current state of distancing has brought into sharp focus, are social beings. Social beings who, for the sake of themselves and others, are living now in a state of modified distancing for the near distant future. But just because we are physically in a bubble, our minds, hearts, and souls do not have to be.

As the brain reads it becomes very active. It literally sparks! Neurobiologists have discovered that the same regions of the brain are stimulated by reading about something as they are by experiencing it.  While reading, hundreds of neural connections are made that include recognition, understanding, awareness, and acceptance of different points of view. New thoughts and feelings arise, as we read, that nurture our ability to feel empathy.

Reading, because it has the power to shift perspective and encourage one to think outside normal bounds, has the power to change society. In this binary time, when there is a tendency to believe that one is on one side or another, reading opens minds and develops the art of listening.

As we are well aware, most of the healing needed in our society will not be solved by a new vaccine. By reading often to our children and, as they grow, encouraging them to read, we can, in our own homes, be part of a process of building the necessary compassion for all people that is vital to our future.

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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.