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Wednesday, December 13, 2017

One More Really Big Reason to Read Stories to Children

What is it about stories that make them so universally attractive?

If you Google reading to children you will find no end of websites telling you why you should do so. One that comes up near the top has the stern (and therefore somewhat off-putting) title Seven Reasons Why You MUST Read to Your Kids at All Ages. Another is titled, more gently, Ten Reasons Why You Should Read to Your Kids. And still another lists fifteen benefits to reading to children. Most of the benefits described at such sites have to do with the warmth and closeness that reading generates between you and your children, the opportunities for conversation and mutual understanding that are opened up by the stories, and the linguistic and pre-reading skills and positive attitudes toward reading that children develop when they are read to. These are all good reasons.

But here I want to focus on a reason that is rarely touched on in articles about why we should read to our kids. It may be the most important one of all. Indeed, this reason gets at the heart of why human beings everywhere are attracted to fiction and why that attraction begins to appear so early in childhood. The reason is this:

Stories provide a simplified simulation world that helps us make sense of and learn to navigate our complex real world. The aspects of our real world that are usually most challenging, most crucial for us to understand, are social aspects. Knowing how to deal with evil as well as love, how to recognize others’ desires and needs, how to behave towards others so as to retain their friendship, and how to earn the respect of the larger society are among the most important skills we all must develop for a satisfying life. Stories that we like, and that our children like, are about all that. They are not explicitly about how to navigate the social world, in the way that a lecture might be. Rather, they are implicitly about it, so listeners or readers have to construct the lessons for themselves, each in his or her own way. Constructed lessons are far more powerful than those that are imparted explicitly.

Fiction is not life, but “is a model, a useful simulation, of selves in the social world.” Attraction to stories is basic to human nature. Historically, stories long preceded the development of writing. All human cultures, except those destroyed by conquerors and colonialists, have stories. The stories are guidelines for living. Before there was writing, stories were passed along orally from generation to generation. Children hearing the stories learned about the beliefs and values of their culture. It might even be said that a culture without stories is a culture without moral direction. Stories describe the basic conflicts and dilemmas of human life and stimulate us to think about ways of resolving them. Today, in literate cultures, stories are written down, and there are many more of them than there were in preliterate cultures, and we pass them on more often through reading than through oral recitation from memory.

Stories Are Simulations of Life’s Challenges and Dilemmas

Robert Lewis Stevenson, long ago, wrote this about art: “Life is monstrous, infinite, illogical, abrupt, and poignant; a work of art, in comparison, is neat, finite, self-contained, rational, flowing, and emasculate. Life imposes by brute energy, like inarticulate thunder; art catches the ear, among the far louder noises of experience, like an air artificially made by a discreet musician.”[1] His point was that we appreciate art — including stories — because they focus our attention on ideas or experiences abstracted away from the messiness of real life, so we can experience them and think about them more clearly.

The Canadian psychologists Kieth Oatley and Raymond Mar have expanded on Stevenson’s ideas — less poetically but more scientifically — in their simulation theory of fiction. Fiction, they write, is not life, but “is a model, a useful simulation, of selves in the social world.”[2] And, elsewhere they write, “Like other simulations (e.g. computer models), fictional stories are informative in that they allow for prediction and explanation while revealing the underlying processes of what is being modeled (in this case, social relationships).”[3] They suggest that we are pre-adapted, by biological evolution, to attend to stories, especially to stories about social relationships, because stories provide a safe and efficient place for us to learn and think about such relationships.

Stories can have an even bigger effect on us than documentaries that contain the same information. I would put it this way. Stories are a form of play, and, as in all play, our involvement with stories is a way of acquiring skills and ideas that are valuable for negotiating the real world. When we enter into a story we enter a make-believe world where, precisely because it is make-believe and has no immediate real-world consequences, and because the events are simplified and the important ones made salient, we can experience the challenges and difficulties more clearly, think about them more rationally, and develop more insight about them, then we might from real-world experience. We can deal with events such as the Three Little Pigs’ being sent away from their mother’s home and striving to avoid being eaten by the wolf; or Chicken Little’s misperception that the sky is falling; or Harry Potter’s trials at the hands of Lord Voldemort; or Huck Finn’s moral dilemmas as he floats down the river with the fleeing slave, Jim; or the passion and irrationality of first love; or betrayal from one whom we thought loved us.

The stories that attract us most are about social interactions. This is apparently as true for young children as it is for adults. In one recent series of experiments, children as young as four years old showed a clear preference for stories about people or people-like animals over stories about actual animals or objects.[4] They also preferred stories in which the protagonists had certain desires or goals they were striving for, or problems to overcome; and they preferred stories about two or more people interacting over stories about one person’s solo activity. We are hungry to learn about the various harmful and helpful ways that people interact with one another, perhaps because that is what we must learn for a satisfying life.

Stories can have an even bigger effect on us than documentaries that contain the same information. In one experiment, for example, some college students read Chekhov’s The Lady with the Toy Dog, about an adulterous love affair, and others read a comparison text that contained the same information but was written in documentary form (for example, the adultery was presented from court records). The result was that those who read the story experienced more emotion and more change in attitudes than did those who read the factual account.[5]

Stories Promote the Development of Empathy

Empathy is believed, by many psychologists, to be the biological foundation for morality. To empathize is to see the world, to some degree, from another person’s point of view and to experience, at least partly, what that person is experiencing. Sensing and in some way feeling the sadness or fear of another person is a first step toward wanting to help that person, and feeling the joy of another is the reward for helping to bring that joy. Even infants show a primitive form of empathy, for example, when one cries in response to another’s crying. As children develop, their capacity for empathy can either grow or atrophy depending on conditions, and it can develop along various lines, also depending on conditions. One set of conditions that may play a crucial role in the growth of empathy consists of the stories that children hear or, later, read.

When you read stories to your children, you may be providing them with wonderful opportunities for moral growth.

Fritz Breithaupt, a specialist in German literature, has suggested that fiction is a powerful vehicle for the development of empathy because the listeners (or readers) automatically identify with one or more of the story’s characters.[6] In identifying, the listener experiences vicariously the sorrows, joys, triumphs, defeats, and ethical conflicts of the protagonist — and maybe those of the antagonist, too. So, immersion in a story can be a continuous exercise in empathy. We not only learn what each Little Pig or Harry Potter does, but we also feel something of what they would feel if they were real. The listener cannot act within the story and affect the outcome, but can experience the emotions and reflect on those emotions.

Because listening or reading is mentally active but physically passive, it promotes thought and reflection that may not occur so much in real life. In real life, the drive to action, or the stress induced, or the ego defenses that are raised, may shortcut reflection. But in fiction, where we cannot alter what happens, all we can do is feel, reflect, and think. In the process, we may learn to care about people whom we might not otherwise care so much about, including people who are quite different from ourselves.

A number of research studies, with children, as well as with adults, support the view that stories promote the development of empathy. One series of studies showed that people who have read a great deal of fiction — especially fiction of the type that deals with interpersonal relationships — score higher on various measures of empathy than do otherwise similar people whose reading centers more on nonfiction than fiction.[7] In an experiment conducted in a low-income area of Toronto, the capacity of 4-year-olds to take another person’s perspective and reason from that perspective increased greatly as a result of an intervention in which they heard many stories read to them by parents, teachers, and research assistants.[8]

In another experiment, conducted in the United States in the 1970s, the attitudes of white children toward black children improved significantly as a result of hearing a story in which the protagonist was a black child.[9] And in yet another experiment, conducted in the United States in the 1960s, white second graders who read stories from a multi-racial reader manifested more positive attitudes toward African Americans, including a greater tendency to identify with them and include them in their own group, than did those who read stories from a traditional reader where all the children were white.[10]

So, when you read stories to your children, you may be providing them with wonderful opportunities for moral growth. As they listen to stories, children imagine ways of behaving when faced with real problems in the real world, and they learn to see things from others’ points of view. Stories help children overcome narcissism, expand their social world, and learn to identify with a broader range of other people.


[1] Quoted by Keith Oatley (1999). Why fiction may be twice as true as fact: Fiction as cognitive and emotional simulation. Review of General Psychology, 3, 101–117.

[2] Keith Oatley & Raymond A. Mar (2005). Evolutionary pre-adaptation and the idea of character in fiction. Journal of Culture and Evolutionary Psychology, 3, 181–196.

[3] Raymond A. Mar & Keith Oatley (2008). The function of fiction is the abstraction and simulation of social experience. Perspectives in Psychological Sciences, 3, 173–192.

[4] Jennifer L. Barnes & Paul Bloom (2014). Children’s preference for social stories. Developmental Psychology, 50, 498–503.

[5] Maja Djikic, Keith Oatley, Sara Zoeterman, & Jordan B. Peterson (2009). On being moved by art: How reading fiction transforms the self. CreativityResearch Journal, 21, 24–29.

[6] Fritz Breithaupt (2011). How is it possible to have empathy? Four models. In P. Leverage, H. Mancing, R. Schweickert, & J. M. William (Eds.), Theory of mind and literature. pp 237–288. Purdue University Press. Also, Fritz Breithaupt (2012). A three-person model of empathy. Emotion Review, 4, 84–91.

[7] Raymond A. Mar, Keith Oatley, Jacob Hirsch, Jennifer del Paz, & Jordan B. Peterson (2006). Bookworms versus nerds: Exposure to fiction versus non-fiction, divergent associations with social ability, and the simulation of fictional social world. Journal of Research in Personality, 40, 694–712. Also, Katrina Fong, Justin B. Mullin, and Raymond A.Mar (2013). What you read matters: The role of fiction genre in predicting interpersonal sensitivity. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 7, 370–376.

[8] Joan Peskin & Janet Wilde Astington (2004). The effects of adding metacognitive language to story texts. Cognitive Development, 19, 253–273.

[9] Phyllis A. Katz & Sue Rosenberg Zalk (1978). Modification of children’s racial attitudes. Developmental Psychology, 14, 447–461.

[10] John H. Litcher & David W. Johnson (1969). changes in attitudes toward negroes of white elementary school students after use of multiethnic readers. Journal of Educational Psychology, 60, 148–152.

Reprinted from The Mission

  • Peter Gray, Ph.D., a research professor at Boston College, is the author of Free to Learn (Basic Books, 2013) and Psychology (Worth Publishers, a college textbook now in its 7th edition).  He has conducted and published research in comparative, evolutionary, developmental, and educational psychology. He did his undergraduate study at Columbia University and earned a Ph.D. in biological sciences at Rockefeller University. His current research and writing focus primarily on children's natural ways of learning and the life-long value of play. His own play includes not only his research and writing, but also long-distance bicycling, kayaking, back-woods skiing, and vegetable gardening.