Now and then an article will pop up on my facebook or twitter feed about how Reading Is Good For You. It reminds me of a sign posted outside my older son’s first nursery school: “Reading to your child for just fifteen minutes a day has been proven to lead to higher test scores!” I know the intention behind such a sign is basically benevolent, but still it irritated me every time I saw it. The straight line drawn between the fifteen minutes of reading and the test scores is stupid on its own, as if a child with caregivers who read to them doesn’t have a whole set of related advantages that might lead to academic advantages. I cringe at the way that just fifteen minutes makes reading sound like some kind of chore, but what a bargain that so little reading can yield such a fabulous reward, higher test scores, hallelujah! Like reading is akin to flossing: Just five minutes a day will save you from the horrors of periodontal disease! And don’t get me started on the test score thing.
Even though I know they aren’t really meant to be taken so seriously, I have kind of the same reaction to these articles about reading boosting brain power or increasing empathy. It’s fluffy science and touts reading as self-improvement, and both of those things annoy me. Of course, it isn’t simply the act of reading that flexes the empathy muscles – it depends, surely, on what you are reading – but experiencing a story that takes us out of ourselves, requires us to see things from a point of view other than our own. I don’t have a waste-of-funding Harvard study to back me up, but I would bet the same “empathetic benefits” (cringe) can be yielded by watching a character-driven TV show or movie.
Anyway, that’s just me practicing being cranky. (I’m getting so good at it, in my old age). I love books, I read a lot, and much good it does me – I’m still a moron, but I read for fun so that’s OK. Stories (via any medium) and empathy, though, I can get behind that connection. In fact, I was struck anew by how story works on empathy over the holidays, in a situation with my own children, and I thought I’d share the anecdote.
We were visiting my husband’s family for Christmas, and among the menagerie of animals there was a huge, gorgeous golden retriever / standard poodle mix. The dog is a gentle giant, but nonetheless, his sheer size terrified my children, and since he was significantly bigger than both of them, I guess I understand that. We aren’t allowed pets in our apartment and they aren’t really used to dogs. Anyway, at one point, the poor dog was put outside because the boys were basically clinging to us in terror and making it impossible for anybody to relax. Once the dog was put outside, they sat down on the sofa and watched the dog, who stared mournfully back through the glass door and made unhappy noises.
I felt sorry for the poor dog, evicted from his own home because my kids were being so jittery. I said, “He sounds sad.” They looked at me. They looked at the dog. “Why?” asked J. I told a story, fairly offhandedly, and more out of irritation with them than actual hope of solving the problem. “This is his house,” I said. “And he was so excited to meet some new friends. But when J and K came to his house, they just screamed and cried when he tried to say hello to them. Put him outside, put him outside! They shouted. The dog tried to talk to them. He wagged his tail to show he was friendly. I know I’m big, he said, but I’m gentle and kind and I just want to be friends with you! Please, please be friends with me! But the boys wouldn’t listen. They said, No, he is too scary! The dog wagged his tail harder, trying to show them that he was really not scary. I don’t want to scare you! He cried. I want to be friends with you! But still the boys wouldn’t listen to him, and the poor dog had to go sit outside in the cold. He stared in the window at the boys and wished that he could find a way to make them like him. He was very sad, and very lonely, and very cold, but nobody patted him or said a kind word to him, and nobody let him back inside his house. If only I could find a way to make friends with those boys, he thought sadly. But the boys just played together in his house, and would not let him come in.”
They stared at me, horrified, and I left them sitting on the sofa like that, to get their dinner ready. About five minutes later, I realized the dog was inside, and that the boys were very cautiously patting him. My husband came to tell me that he’d found them in tears, asking that the dog please be let in. I felt a bit guilty for upsetting them, but also pleased that the dog-child impasse was resolved.
K, the two-year-old, remained a bit jumpy around the dog, but didn’t ask for him to be put outside again, and the four-year-old became fast friends with him. That would probably have happened anyway, but I was impressed at how effective the story had been. They had been told, of course, that the dog was friendly, that the dog was trying to say hello, that the dog would be lonely outside. None of that registered – they were tired and they were scared and they were thinking about themselves, as kids (and all people) do. But when told essentially the same things in the form of a story, themselves cast in the roles of villains, they were able to see the situation from the dog’s point of view (sort of – I can’t really claim to speak for the dog I suppose), and they pulled themselves together out of … yay, empathy!