Reading Boosts Children's Empathy

In a new poll for International Children's Book Day, half of the parents surveyed said that they believed reading a book was the best way to boost children's empathy.  Roald Dahl’s The BFG and Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird topped the list of books parents said best helped children develop empathy.

The poll was commissioned by Amnesty International to coincide with the ‘Amnesty CILIP Honour’, the first ever human rights commendation for children’s books.  Parents were asked which pastime is most likely to develop a child's ability to put themselves in other people’s shoes.  53% chose reading a book, 12% watching a TV programme, 5% watching a film at the cinema and just 3% selected playing a computer game as the best way to develop empathy.

This belief is backed up by the findings of Dr Raymond Mar, associate professor of psychology at York University in Canada.  He has conducted research into the connection between reading and empathy, and found that children exposed to more storybooks tend to be better at understanding the thoughts and emotions of other people.  Commenting on the link between reading narrative fiction and social abilities, Dr Mar said:

"Reading with your child may help them to think about others and their feelings, a key to developing empathy for others. It's great that the intuitions of parents seem to line up with what we know from scientific research."

Parents were also asked to select one book from a list of titles which they felt had best helped them to learn to identify with others.  The ten books most popular books were:

  • The BFG by Roald Dahl
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • Goodnight Mr Tom, by Michelle Magorian
  • Charlotte’s Web, by EB White
  • Winnie the Pooh, by AA Milne
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling
  • Noughts and Crosses, by Malorie Blackman
  • Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Mildred D Taylor

The findings come as Amnesty is set to make a special children’s book commendation in a new partnership together with the professional librarian’s body, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP). In a first for the world of books, Amnesty and the librarians will select one book from the Carnegie shortlist, and one from the Kate Greenaway illustrated book shortlists, awarding the Amnesty CILIP Honour to the books that most distinctively illuminate, uphold or celebrate freedoms. The shortlists were announced on 16 March and the two overall Amnesty winners will be announced in June, in time to inform parents’ summer reading selections for their children.

Nicky Parker, Amnesty’s Head of Publishing, said:

“There is no doubt that the ability of books to develop a child’s empathy and compassion is unparalleled. Of course the world needs a generation of people growing up with those engrained qualities - now more than ever.

“As Harper Lee’s Atticus had it, ‘you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view ... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’

“We hope the Amnesty award will make it easy for parents and teachers to identify books which will teach children about truth, freedom and justice, and encourage them to feel they can shape a better world.”

Former Carnegie winner and inaugural Amnesty CILIP judge Tanya Landman, said:

“Books break down barriers. They have the ability to show us that we’re all members of one human race. The Amnesty award will have a huge impact in recognising books that open up difficult situations. As a judge, I want to be transported by a gripping story but I want to be moved by it too and know more about an issue than I did at the beginning. I want it to open up hungry minds to what’s going on in the world.”

The shortlists are:

The CILIP Carnegie Medal 2016 shortlist in full (alphabetically by author):

  • One by Sarah Crossan (Bloomsbury)
  • The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge (Macmillan)
  • There Will Be Lies by Nick Lake (Bloomsbury)
  • The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness (Walker Books)
  • Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders (Faber)
  • The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick (Indigo)
  • Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley (MiraInk, HarperCollins)
  • Fire Colour One by Jenny Valentine (HarperCollins)

The CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal 2016 shortlist in full (alphabetically by illustrator):

  • Willy’s Stories illustrated and written by Anthony Browne (Walker Books)
  • There’s a Bear on My Chair illustrated and written by Ross Collins (Nosy Crow)
  • Once Upon an Alphabet illustrated and written by Oliver Jeffers (HarperCollins)
  • Sam & Dave Dig a Hole illustrated by Jon Klassen, written by Mac Barnett (Walker Books)
  • Something About a Bear illustrated and written by Jackie Morris (Frances Lincoln)
  • Captain Jack and the Pirates illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, written by Peter Bently (Puffin)
  • The Sleeper and the Spindle illustrated by Chris Riddell, written by Neil Gaiman (Bloomsbury)
  • Footpath Flowers illustrated by Sydney Smith, written by JonArno Lawson (Walker Books)

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