Reading with Your Child Can Help Them Develop This Soft Skill
Updated: Apr 27, 2020
Is story time for you and your child a routine or an anomaly?
Does it happen every night or every once in a while? Does your child ask for story time with Mom or Dad or more time alone with the iPad?
It seems fairly universal that reading with your children should be closer to the top of your priority list.
Some even recommend beginning the reading ritual while your baby is still in utero.
We know there are many demands on your time as a parent, and reading with your child after a long day of work might feel like too much to ask. But taking just a few minutes a day to sit down and read with your child can change the kind of relationships they have now and in the future.
Sound overly optimistic? Let’s look at how.
Researchers have talked about the link between social imagination and reading for several years. Social imagination is the ability to perceive, understand, and even predict another’s feelings, thoughts, and desires. Basically, it’s the ability we have to walk in someone else’s shoes. It turns out the skill of social imagination is absolutely critical for developing and maintaining healthy relationships. Why?
Do you remember the first time you experienced loss? When your first pet died or your first love broke your heart? What about the time you scored the winning goal or got that acceptance call from your dream job? Was somebody there, cheering you on or grieving with you? How did that affect your relationship with them?
How did having someone there to support and validate you help you process and manage your own emotions and experiences?
When we take the time to read, or even tell, our children a story, we give them the opportunity to practice empathy. As they listen to the experiences of a fictional character, they can imagine the character’s thoughts and feelings and then understand the character’s subsequent actions. And they can do all of this at a safe distance—it’s practice for real life!
You’ll find that your children will develop relationships with the characters in the books you read. It’s a natural outcome of empathizing with a person, fictional or not.
In fact, researchers have found that real and fictional connections stimulate our brains in the same way.
Research shows that children who read, especially with the guidance of a parent or teacher who emphasizes social imagination, know how to talk about and interpret the inner world of another: their thoughts, feelings, and actions. This allows them to think critically about relationships—why people interact the way that they do—and thus gives them the tools to navigate their own relationships.
Ultimately, reading allows children to explore the human consciousness in a risk-free way.
Then, when they themselves are being bullied, or their future partner is having a bad day, they are well-equipped to empathize—in their relationship with themselves and with others.
Here are some ideas to optimize your reading time with your children and focus on empathy:
Focus on the illustrations. While pointing to the face of a character, ask your child, “How do you think she is feeling right now?”
Help your child make personal connections with the feelings and experiences of the character. “Have you ever felt sad like that?”
Help your child put themselves in the character’s shoes. “What would you do if someone bullied you like that?”
Be responsive and available during story-time. Do your best to be totally present and allow yourself to be vulnerable with your children.
Help your child broaden their emotional vocabulary. Use this as a time to introduce new words like “disappointed,” “ecstatic,” or “terrified.” Encourage your child to use more descriptive words other than the typical “good,” “bad,” and “fine.”
In the back of each EQ Explorers book, we’ve included a list of questions for you to discuss with your child after you read the story. Put a little extra effort into optimizing story time with your child and finding creative ways to focus on empathy.
It’s worth it. We promise!
Have additional ideas or experiences? Comment below!
1. Lysaker, Judith, and Clare Tonge. “Learning to Understand Others Through Relationally Oriented Reading.” The Reading Teacher, vol. 66, no. 8, 2013, pp. 632–641., doi:10.1002/trtr.1171.
2. Mar, Raymond A., et al. “Bookworms versus Nerds: Exposure to Fiction versus Non-Fiction, Divergent Associations with Social Ability, and the Simulation of Fictional Social Worlds.” Journal of Research in Personality, vol. 40, no. 5, 2006, pp. 694–712., doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2005.08.002.