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Parents, you already know how important it is to read to your kids. And you’ve probably been reading stories to them since they were newborns. (Raise your hand if you can recite “The Cat in the Hat” from memory!)
Even very young babies benefit when parents read aloud to them. Although infants might not be able to understand the words you’re saying, reading to them helps them begin to understand how communication works, according to PBS Newshour. As your children grow, so do the benefits of reading together.
And neuroscientists have determined that there’s a way to make reading to children even more beneficial to your kids’ development, and it could actually make them more successful as adults.
Fortunately, it’s quite a simple method: Instead of reading to your kids, read with your kids. It’ll make for a far more beneficial experience. Just reading to your kids is really only “the bare minimum,” according to Psychology Today.
“…Most parents don’t intentionally read to their child to improve their language skills,” neurobiologist and professor Erin Clabough writes for Psychology Today. “No, instead we read to them to make them sleepy, or so they can have something to write down on their school reading logs.”
Clabough says this detached and rote sort of reading isn’t much better for kids’ development than watching TV. Ouch.
Clabough instead suggests that we instead think differently about the stories we read to our children. Ask them questions along the way such as, “What do you think the outcome will be?” or “What would you do if you were in this situation?”
By doing this, it encourages children to put themselves in the shoes of others. Research conducted by David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano of The New School in New York found that people who read literary fiction develop better intellectual empathy.
Of course, it may be hard for kids, especially younger children, to dive right into literary fiction because of its complexity. But Clabough says you can still spur the same kind of development in children by reading with them in a way that encourages them to put themselves in the story. This same concept can even be used with the simplest stories and plot lines.
By reading this way with your child, you’re giving them the opportunity to test out intellectual empathy. It helps children develop the ability to perceive how others see, feel and experience the world around them.
Intellectual empathy can be quite useful in life. As Bill Murphy Jr., author “How to Raise Successful Kids,” explained in an article in Inc., having intellectual empathy not only helps people understand how others will react to them, but it can also inspire them to come up with products, solutions and ideas that will then inspire others.
So, how, exactly, do you “put your kids in the story”?
Murphy says it’s as simple as interrupting the story at appropriate moments to encourage children to put themselves in the story line or to put themselves in the minds of the characters.
“Let them sort through the conflict before the characters do,” he wrote in Inc.
To give you an example, Clabough cites the classic children’s book “Are You My Mother?,” which is about a baby bird that hatches while its mother is out looking for food. Clabough suggests you ask your child what they would do if they were the baby bird. Even if your child already knows how the story ends, Clabough says asking these kinds of questions will still encourage children to come up with new ideas.
Now, this isn’t to say you have to stop at every page and ask questions, but one or two questions when the opportunity presents itself can really help your child to think outside of the box.
Clabough goes on to say that educational studies suggest that it’s reflecting on a learning experience afterward that truly leads to growth, and encouraging children to make decisions while they’re reading amounts to decision-making practice, which “results in synaptic changes and strengthening of neuronal pathways in your child.”
Simply put, by letting your child fictionally “step in the shoes of others,” you’re teaching them to not only become better readers, but to develop intellectual empathy, which will ultimately make them better bosses, spouses, co-workers and negotiators later in life.
Getting creative and having fun with this type of reading will not only be beneficial in the long run, but it can be a very fun bonding experience in the moment. So, there you have it—don’t forget to try this out with those bedtime stories tonight!