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A Neuroscientist on How to Really Read to Kids

How adding 30 seconds to a bedtime routine can foster empathy in a big way.

Most parents read to their children. We’re steeped in studies about the benefits of reading to kids, so it’s become rather like a box we have to check as responsible guardians—the bare minimum a parent must do to ensure success.

But most parents don’t intentionally read to their child to improve their language skills. No, instead we read to them to make them sleepy, or so they can have something to write down on their school reading logs. We pull out a nightly book to have a bedtime routine (as prescripted by child-rearing experts), to calm down our ADHD child, or maybe to get in some cuddle time before bed. Some nights we even manage to do the different character voices, despite the whirling world of dishes and email and desperation for the day to be over, and despite the fact that it’s “Are You My Mother?” again.

CC0 Public Domain
Source: CC0 Public Domain

On the best of days, we read to our children to expose them to different worlds. We use stories like fables to engage children while we sneak in some abstract concepts about feelings and relationships, like how the Sneaky Chef laces her blueberry muffins with ground spinach. We buy the American Girl book “The Care and Keeping of You” to teach our daughter about her developing body. We pull a few bullying books from the library when our son is being picked on at school.

This is perhaps a start, but books can be far more useful tools. We just have to learn to stop simply reading to our children, and start engaging them.

There’s a well-known study that showed that adults who read a short literary fiction text can better understand the mental states of others (Kidd and Castano 2013). In literary fiction, in-depth portrayals of a character’s inner thoughts and feelings allow the reader to fill in the missing pieces about the character’s motivation and perspective; it strengthens their innate sense of empathy.

Most children’s books don’t have this level of writing and nuance, but if approached correctly, any book can be used to foster empathy and decision-making skills. Even terrible books.

So how do we use books differently? Let’s pull out the conflict. Read through the bullying story until the kids start to be mean to each other. And instead of inwardly wincing and reading faster, press pause and close the book. Ask your child what they would do if they were in the character’s position. Brainstorm, and then open the book back up and allow the author to lead you through to the end.

From a neuroscientific perspective, each night most parents are losing an incredible opportunity to use artificial conflict as real-life practice. For “Are You My Mother?,” the conflict happens immediately. The baby bird wakes up in a nest all alone and his mother is gone. What would you do, baby bird? Even for books you’ve read together 216 times, your child can come up with a different way the character can react, a different decision the character can make.

Public Domain/Pixabay
Source: Public Domain/Pixabay

Educational studies have repeatedly shown that it’s the reflection process where the deep learning happens. The most powerful part of reading often happens when you put down the book. The value of the story is found percolating in our children’s heads afterwards—in the thoughts banging up against their assumptions and their carefully constructed worlds. Does the book make them think after the cover is closed?

Studies have also shown if you make a decision about something, you remember it better. The brain gets better at whatever it practices, and reflection allows a child to actively practice making decisions, rather than passively listening to the book. That active practice results in synaptic changes and strengthening of neuronal pathways in your child.

As parents, we are in control of what their children practice in an intimate and powerful way. We all want kids to be proficient readers. But on a deeper level, what do we really want our children to be good at? Empathy can be distilled down to simply taking another’s perspective—an easy thing to practice— but the benefits of enhanced empathy skills are staggering: Empathetic people are more satisfied with life, they have better relationships and lower divorce rates. Empathetic people are better bosses, coworkers, negotiators, and friends.

It’s a great parent trick: You turn a regular book into a choose-your-own adventure, so it’s more like real conflict, more like life. It becomes essential practice for when your daughter’s best friend Sam will suddenly stop talking to her in the mornings at school in middle school, or when your son’s boss will steal the credit for his work at the board meeting—practice for grownup situations that seem so far down the road right now. And since the developing brain is so plastic, empathy is easy to teach now, but harder to learn later.

Reading books to our kids straight through, without pause or reflection, is the same as plopping them down to watch a movie. We’ve been sucked in by the plot, and we’re dying to know what happens. But we’re still on the outside, watching someone else make decisions. The real magic happens inside our own heads when we try on someone else’s life.

Do you have to pause and reflect every single time you read a book? No… obviously some nights a quick read is all you’ll have the energy for, even if it means skipping a few pages to fast-forward to bedtime (we’ve all been there). But when you have the time, take the time not just to read but to reflect, and you’ll find you have happier, more aware, and far more empathetic children as a result.

More from Erin Clabough Ph.D.
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