Children and empathy: Reading to learn empathy

How reading can help children develop empathy.

Follow these steps for developing empathy skills for young children through reading.
Follow these steps for developing empathy skills for young children through reading.

In the book “Unselfie: Why empathetic kids succeed in our All-About-Me World,” educational psychologist Michele Borba talks about the importance of empathy, why children are having a harder time developing it and how to help children learn empathy to succeed.

Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone’s shoes and understand what they are going through; it’s the ability to feel what they are feeling. Why is empathy so important? With ongoing societal issues like bullying, youth mental health concerns, teaching empathy to children is more important than ever.

Empathetic people have the ability to connect with others on a deeper level and can lead to individuals being helpful, involved and invested in other people. In our social society where we have to rely on each other, empathy is an increasingly important tool to connect with the world.

Reading to develop empathy

Child development experts cite reading as one of the greatest ways to educate your child. Reading can enhance a child’s vocabulary and literacy skills, teach them math or science concepts and help them learn history. Reading with young children can teach them empathy, too.

Children and empathy: Developing an ethical code” talked about the importance of perspective-taking in the development of empathy. When children read stories, they are given the opportunity to understand the story from the perspective of the characters. Think of reading as a game of role playing, where children can practice seeing the world through someone else’s eyes that allows them to develop an understanding and respect for the experiences of others.

Borba suggests three steps for developing empathy skills for young children through reading.

Step 1: Ask “What if.” Encourage children to really step into the shoes of different characters by asking them, “What if…that happened to you, what would you do, what would you say?”

Step 2: Ask “How would you feel?” Ask your child if they can relate to the character’s experience, “Has something like that ever happened to you? How did it make you feel?” For young children, point out the faces or body language of the charters illustrations and ask how they might guess that person is feeling.

Step 3: Ask them to think about “you” instead of “me.” By encouraging children to think about someone else’s perspective, you are asking them to think about the “you” and to ask themselves, “How do they feel? What do they need? How does this affect them?” You can encourage this skill while reading by asking them to think about or guess what others are feeling in the book.

For more information, visit Dr. Borba’s website. For more articles on child development, academic success, parenting and life skill development, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.

To learn about the positive impact children and families experience due to MSU Extension programs, read our 2015 Impact Reports: “Preparing young children to success” and “Preparing the future generation for success.” Additional impact reports, highlighting even more ways Michigan 4-H and MSU Extension positively impacted individuals and communities in 2015, can be downloaded from the Michigan 4-H website.

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