Here’s a novel way to look at reading.
Have you noticed that more leaders and managers are looking for “soft skills” in employees today? Things like self-discipline, self-awareness, creative problem-solving, empathy, learning agility, adaptiveness, flexibility, positivity and rational judgment.
In other words: Emotional Intelligence.
And, as emotional intelligence itself centres around knowledge of Self and Others, it’s also worth noting that one of the most important ways to teach emotional intelligence is by developing your own sense of Empathy. (One of the big benefits of reading to your child.)
So it’s not that much of a leap to suggest that, if you want to give your child the best possible chance at success later in life, read to them – it develops empathy and the very “soft” skills the business world is looking for.
There’s a lot of scientific evidence for it – and it’s actually a nice little story in itself.
See, researchers noted in the 80s that fiction readers tend to claim to feel becoming “lost in a book” (1988 study) or being transported to a “different world” (1993 study), so they tried to understand the mental processes behind these phenomena.
It took a while, but eventually, they learned that there are two parts to empathy: 1) Cognitive Empathy, the ability to see the world from another person’s perspective and B) Affective Empathy, the ability to share someone else’s feelings and emotions – including a better understanding of your own emotions (2005 study).
And, since reading fiction means seeing the world through the character's eyes, it’s proven to exercise cognitive empathy (2002 study) and has been argued to give a “purer” representation of affective empathy than real life (2010 study).
At this point, scientists became fascinated and launched numerous studies into empathy development and reading in children. And it all came back to show that it does – there are so many studies, including this one in 2005, this one in 2009 and another in 2010.
So, with that in mind, we set out to ask just how reading develops empathy…
By its very nature, fiction requires us to experience the world through the eyes of characters. Many of whom are from different backgrounds and with very different experiences from our own – a yoga-loving mouse, a cranky crocodile etc. This helps your child understand and relate to people who are different from themselves.
Reading books that portray a wide range of emotions helps children identify and understand their own emotions better. Which, in turn, helps them recognise and empathise with those same emotions in others.
Sci-fi author Orson Scott Card famously said that we love stories because it’s the only way we can truly know someone else – that’s the allure that keeps us coming back. And, through stories, children learn to identify with characters and to understand their points of view and feelings. This is what develops the ability to put themselves in other people's shoes.
When you talk about the characters, their feelings, and the situations they face in a story, you’re not only creating a deeper connection with your child but also helping them develop empathy by encouraging them to consider different perspectives.
Reading also develops a child’s imagination – an important skill for empathy, since we’re really only “imagining” others’ feelings.
Empathy is nothing without the ability to connect and share one’s insights. And, since reading improves your child’s communication skills, it also helps them connect with others socially.
It’s not only fiction that teaches empathy. Reading non-fiction books about different cultures, countries, histories and people can also help children understand and empathise with people from different backgrounds.
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