Advice Column, Child, Parenting, Toddler

The link between storytelling and empathy

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How we can create more empathetic children by reading to them

Bedtime stories. Day time stories. Life time stories. However you tell them, storytelling with your children can be an incredibly powerful tool to helping them gain new perspectives and create shared understanding with those around them. But why is it that stories drive our empathy up and why should we care?

As the world struggles through a thirty-year decline in empathy levels, impacting our emotional health, levels of bullying in schools and even frequency of violence, we can’t help but look to the next generation to drive a far deeper sense of empathy between all of us. Deep down we know that our world demands this of us and that we have no choice but to rebuild the connections that evolution bound us to as a pro social society. Studies have now shown that from two years of age, children start to show genuine empathy; understanding how other people feel even when they don’t feel the same way that they do. 

When it comes to bringing up empathetic young humans, there are many ways we can empower our children to truly develop the emotional intelligence our world needs.  At its core, the empathetic role modelling we apply at home is probably the most important of these. However, beyond this our commitment to frequently reading stories to our small people has a far deeper relevance than the tales within the books we choose. 

Emotional simulation and imagination through storytelling is the foundation for our children’s ability to evolve their capacity to empathise and truly understand others. It allows them to make the leap from their own beautifully self-centered world to recognising that others may feel distinctly different to them – and that recognising this is well within our reach and role. Academic research now shows that reading, or being read to, actually changes the neuro pathways in our brain – it quite literally alters the way we process and think. Our ability to instigate children’s’ imaginations and help them ‘feel’ how others experience the world is a superpower us parents have. And all it takes is a few books to get this started.

The reality is that storytelling is extremely powerful for all social creatures and for all of modern civilisation we have been sharing and learning through this medium. From drawings on cave walls to the first religious texts and the first children’s tales homed in books for children in the 1740’s, we have always known that stories positively impact society. Telling our children stories allows them to rapidly understand people’s emotions and realities, bringing the brains of a generation of our children together. 

3 compelling reasons why you should read more to your children:

  1. Stories transport us and allow children to imagine how another sees the world by feeling as the character does.
  2. Stories foster children’s understanding of prosocial behaviours and our ability as humans to work together as part of a group.
  3. Stories can be used to break down bias, and foster inclusivity.

The power of storytelling in building our humanity and society shouldn’t ever be denigrated to a pre-bedtime routine alone. In April 2020, mid the world’s worst global pandemic in recent history, Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, made the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy qualified ‘Essential Workers.’ As this news story unfolded across the planet we saw the belief in the power of storytelling for our children at an unpreceded level. 

When the leaders of entire countries are imapacting policy to ensure that storytelling and imagination remain at the top of the national agenda – and that our children remain connected to the power of empathising with others (fictional or otherwise) we know that we are onto something that can truly change the face of our, and our children’s, future.

By Mimi Nicklin.

Mimi Nicklin hosts Empathy for Breakfast, a weekly breakfast show, and a podcast, Secrets of the Gap. She is also a mom and an author, and you can pre-order her debut book, Softening the Edge here

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