If you ask any parent or teacher, they’ll tell you they care most about their children growing up to be good people.
But what does that look like? There are common traits: Kindness, empathy, and consideration for others. And these traits are just as important as (if not more important than) traditional educational goals rooted in specific academic disciplines.
But can you really teach someone how to be kind? We say yes; and you start by raising readers.
Research Shows Reading Improves Us
Evidence suggests there is a way, and one path toward becoming a more empathetic person is luckily also an incredibly fun and exciting one: Read more fiction.
Research points to the act of “perspective-taking” as a key component of being able to understand where other people are coming from and to make choices with those expanded realities in mind. Reading fiction has been likened to a flight simulator. Just as pilots practice flying (often simulating conditions they hope to never face in the real world), reading fiction allows us to imagine ourselves in social situations beyond our own real-world access.
We are learning to identify with characters, recognize why they make the choices they do, compare their motivations and reasoning to our own, and come out of a book with a better sense of how we might interact with others outside of the page.
Some of this impact is neurological. Research shows that parts of our brain are activated as if we are having real-life experiences just by reading about them. When we read the word “kick,” for instance, the parts of the brain responsible for the physical act of kicking light up.
All of this adds up to a real, measurable outcome on social skills for those who read a lot. Brain scans show that parts of the brain associated with simulating what others are thinking are activated while reading fiction. Meanwhile, heavy fiction readers score higher on tests designed to measure social skills and interpersonal sensitivity.
The bottom line is that there is plenty of evidence that reading fiction can improve our ability to connect meaningfully and kindly with others in measurable ways. To celebrate the fact that we can become better people while also escaping into the amazing world of some excellent books, here are four choices (spanning different age groups and interests) that can help us get some empathetic perspective.
1. Matilda by Roald Dahl
There are plenty of characters deserving sympathy in the fictional world, but watching bright, creative Matilda get ignored by her parents and then tortured by her school’s headmistress is enough to make anyone squirm. Matilda faces situations magnified beyond most of our worst nightmares but also has powers beyond our imagination with which to address them. The way she solves her problems are, quite literally, impossible for most of us, so stepping into her shoes requires us to reject the simple notion of pity and to instead think beyond our own experiences.
2. The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Dewalt and Oliver Jeffers
This delightfully fun picture book might simply seem silly. A group of crayons writes a letter to Duncan, the child who has been putting them through some pretty rough treatment. While children are likely to laugh throughout the intentionally funny book, they’ll also get to practice looking at the world through a completely different perspective.
3. Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
This critically acclaimed young adult novel is inspired by Nigerian mythology and brings readers into a dark, complex world. It also literally forces perspective shifting as the chapters alternate between three different protagonists with very different perspectives on the exact same circumstances. Just when readers think they’ve got it clear who is “right” and who is “wrong,” the tale shifts its point of view and leaves readers scrambling to shift alliances. The end result is a deeply complex understanding of just how complicated human emotion and the choices we make can be.
4. The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery
This nonfiction exploration takes readers into the mind of an octopus through the eyes of researcher Sy Montgomery. By the end, Montgomery invites us to question just about everything we think we know about the divide between humans and animals. If an octopus can dream, feel, and make friends, what else could we be misunderstanding about other species? While most of the studies on reading and empathy focus on the impact of fiction, this is definitely a great way for nonfiction fans to get a taste of the same effect.
Perspective-taking is an excellent critical thinking practice that helps us expand our understanding of others and ultimately make better choices informed by empathy. We’re never too young to start practicing this habit, and reading makes it fun and easy to slip into someone else’s mind for a while.
I was compensated with a game for this blog post but the opinions are my own.
Michelle Parrinello-Cason is an educator with a Ph.D. in rhetoric and composition who has taught in college, high school, and elementary settings. Her focus is on helping students who have struggled to find a fit in traditional classrooms find positive learning experiences. She has done this through teaching developmental writing classes, creating curriculum for gifted students, and engaging in the homeschool community to create non-traditional learning opportunities.
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