The power of stories to build empathy

21 Feb 2017

Posted By: SG   |   Source:   |   URL:


“With the post-Referendum rise in hate crimes and alarming developments in America, the question of how we raise our children to be open minded, caring citizens suddenly seems much more pressing.

Now more than ever our children need the life skill of empathy. Surely the time has come for our education systems to focus less on rugged individualism and personal success, and more on qualities which emphasise co-operation and our common humanity? Empathy is not a fluffy thing. Without it a child will struggle to form strong relationships or understand people different from themselves. Later, in the workplace, they will find team-working very hard.

Starting young

The cheering thing is that 98% of us are capable of learning new empathy skills. The brain is plastic, and if we practice, we can all grow our empathy muscles, a bit like going to the gym. And like all skills, empathy is best learnt young.

In focusing on how to help children be empathic, we’re going with the grain. For most children, empathy is part of their natural development. Between 18-24 months, infants develop “theory of mind” – the ability to recognise other people’s thoughts and feelings. They learn empathy by experiencing it themselves, when the adults around them feel empathy towards them.  

Stories as a powerful tool

We can consciously focus on helping children become empathetic by using literature, the tool we humans have miraculously created and which helps us understand the complexities of other people’s minds and hearts. Now there is hard neuroscience evidence from MRI scans that as we read fiction, our brains are tricked into thinking we’re genuinely part of the story. The empathetic emotions we feel for book characters wires our brains to have the same sort of sensitivity towards real people.

Since stories are such a natural part of parenting, and schools are awash with books, this is seriously good news. We can all focus on achieving a “double win”, simultaneously building empathy and literacy skills – teachers and parents can develop children’s empathy skills by talking to them about books in a particular way.

For instance, you could try…

  • Talking about the book’s content a bit differently. Focus more on the character and their feelings than the plot. Pause in the middle of reading, to allow space for the child to think about the character’s dilemmas and points of view.
  • Giving feelings a name. Children with a wide feelings vocabulary are great at sharing how someone else is feeling. As you talk, pick up on new words for feelings, and match your facial expression and body language to the feelings. Share what they mean, e.g. “I’m wondering how Dogger is feeling…maybe a bit lost and alone?”

In a darkening world, it gives me hope that we can all use stories to teach our children the empathy skills they need, so that they can build bridges, not walls.”

Two great books to help build empathy:

  • They All Saw a Cat: beautifully illustrated picture book showing different perspectives on a cat (from the point of view of a fish, bat, mouse, etc)
  • Something Else: achingly touching story of a creature who feels left out until he finds someone as different as him.





Miranda McKearney OBE, Chair, EmpathyLab

@EmpathyLabUK   @MirandaMcK


Institution: Author: Miranda McKearney