by Jenna Kalinsky.
What’s the secret to ensure your kids are engaged, broad-minded, and grow into adults of consequence who will help the world be a better, more compassionate place?
Give them books.
Well written literature gives readers the ability to appreciate others’ experiences and generates feelings of empathy. Parents can nurture this openness in their children by giving them books that span the diversity of human experience: race, religion, physical ability and sexual orientation.
When children are exposed to a wide range of narratives, unfamiliar experiences become familiar and create a common thread that links the readers with their fictional counterparts. In a world that needs more compassion and understanding than ever, this is the most important gift we can give.
Stories Begin at the Beginning
We don’t have to instil a love of stories in our children- human beings come pre-programmed to appreciate and crave them. To make meaning out of feelings, thoughts, and the great unknown, our minds naturally draw connections between these things, creating a causal chain of “what happened?” and “then what?”.
We do this because facts when isolated from a greater context tend not to stick. In fact, it’s been shown that people remember information when it is weaved into narratives up to 22 times more than facts alone.
Why Are Stories So Powerful?
Stories make information feel “real” by contextualizing it in a way that reflects real life experience. Details of the senses make the fictional world visual, visceral, and “come to life”; actors/characters journey through the narrative with a purpose; and the tension embedded in stories- that feeling of “what’s at stake” for those characters- taps into and realizes for us our biological imperative to survive.
Additionally, scientists have determined that people who read literary fiction, which is to say stories that speak to the human condition with well drawn characters and that use vivid language and musical or lyric sentences, grow a much greater capacity for empathy.
Researchers reported in Brain & Language that when subjects in their laboratory read a metaphor involving texture, the sensory cortex, responsible for perceiving texture through touch, became active.
Metaphors like ‘The singer had a velvet voice’ and ‘He had leathery hands’ roused the sensory cortex, while phrases matched for meaning, like ‘The singer had a pleasing voice’ and ‘He had strong hands,’ did not.”
The more we read literature, which is rife with opportunities to explore a world that comes to feel as real as the one in which we physically inhabit (certainly, when one is reading, the distinction between the “real” and the “fictive” blurs), the more we have the opportunity to enter into those worlds in full, including into the hearts and minds of the characters whose lives, foibles and triumphs come to feel personal.
“There is evidence that just as the brain responds to depictions of smells and textures and movements as if they were the real thing, so it treats the interactions among fictional characters as something like real-life social encounters,” says Anne Murphy Paul.
Theory of Mind
This ability to sink into that secondary experience is what researchers have come to call “Theory of Mind,” which is the ability to understand that even if others don’t necessarily hold the same beliefs as us, we can still appreciate their perspective, and is closely linked to empathy, which is to not only understand another’s experience, but to be able to enter into it emotionally and intellectually. It has been found that children as young as three years old can develop Theory of Mind.
Paul explains, “A 2010 study by Dr. [Raymond] Mar [a psychologist at York University in Canada] found in preschool-age children that the more stories they had read to them, the keener their theory of mind.”
Fiction, Dr. Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto (and a published novelist), notes, “‘is a particularly useful simulation because negotiating the social world effectively is extremely tricky, requiring us to weigh up myriad interacting instances of cause and effect. Just as computer simulations can help us get to grips with complex problems such as flying a plane or forecasting the weather, so novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life.”
Books Make the World Familiar
Understanding the complexities of social life is a skill everyone needs now more than ever. And while we can take for granted that children will always respond to a thoughtfully written story, we can go further to nurture an appreciation for those that detail experiences happening beyond our own backyards.
In a list of ways in which reading is crucial for children’s development, Pam Myers, BSEd, confirms “[A] broader worldview encourages curiosity, and fosters communications skills and an inquiring mind.”
Those attributes would gain even more traction in a child who is given stories that take place in other parts of the world and that feature characters of all races, ethnicities, religions, and abilities. Such literature engenders more understanding for the human experience and a feeling of familiarity with those characters and their situations.
As storytelling, especially in novels, gives us a glimpse into another person’s conscience to see how they think, it can affirm our own beliefs and perceptions, but more often, it challenges them.
A study published in Basic and Applied Social Psychology found reading fiction significantly increased empathy towards others, especially people the readers initially perceived as “outsiders” (e.g. foreigners, people of a different race, skin color, or religion).
U of T Professor Kang Lee has found that racial bias may arise in babies as young as six to nine months of age. “… racial bias may arise out of our lack of exposure to other-race individuals in infancy,” Lee said. “[…] parents can help prevent racial bias by introducing their children to people from a variety of races.”
Helen Antoniades of Butterfly Books, a former children’s book subscription service specializing in diversity in literature, said, “imagine if every child got books, […] full of characters that reflect diversity in every way. […] This would show children many examples of how people come together, no matter what their race or religion, sexual orientation or disability, to learn new things, to have fun, and to solve problems (real or imagined!).
It would show them that people experience the same sadnesses and joys, disappointments and celebrations. It would put the focus on what we have in common. It would teach children that instead of fearing someone who doesn’t look like you or believe what you believe, you respect them, learn from them, enjoy them.”
Books Teach Compassion and Social Change
Because books move us to empathy and TOM (Theory of Mind), our giving children books that celebrate diversity, inclusivity and tolerance not only exposes them to the world, but does so in immediate and tangibly satisfying ways that ultimately promote compassion and social change. Jonathan Gottschall in his book The Storytelling Animal, says the studies show that, “the constant firing of our neurons in response to fictional stimuli strengthens and refines the neural pathways that lead to skillful navigation of life’s problems” and … therefore “people who read a lot of novels have better social and empathetic abilities, [and] are more skillful navigators, than those who don’t.”
Among those books doing the good work of just that is award-winning children’s book Last Stop on Market Street by Matt De La Pena and Christian Robinson, shared with One Lit Place by Dr. Sunny Man Chu Lau of Bishop’s University last year. This lyric book elegantly celebrates the beauty of viewing life through a different lens. In it, a wise grandmother teaches her young grandson about acceptance, being open-minded, and love as they ride the bus to the soup kitchen where they volunteer each week.
CJ looked around as he stepped off the bus.
Crumbling sidewalks and broken-down doors,
graffiti-tagged windows and boarded-up stores.
He reached for his Nana’s hand.
“How come it’s always so dirty over here?”
She smiled and pointed to the sky.
“Sometimes when you’re surrounded by dirt, CJ,
you’re a better witness for what’s beautiful.”
CJ saw the perfect rainbow arcing over their soup kitchen.
He wondered how his nana always found beautiful
where he never even thought to look.
What We Can Do: One Book at a Time
The world we live in is awash with wonder and love, but it is also fractured and hurting, and hungry for kindness, empathy and healing. While all people would do well to pick up a good book in order to expand their essential selves and become better and more empathetic human beings (or keep up the good work!), we can do even more good by consciously and responsibility sharing with the next generation good stories, ones that excite them, fulfill them, and celebrate the richness in all people, tolerance, and inclusivity so they become well-rounded, engaged citizens of the world.
It’s not hard after all. It just starts with a book. Then, oh, the places they’ll go.
What books have you shared with your children that you would recommend to other parents/caregivers/educators? Please comment below!