For Better Social Skills, Scientists Recommend a Little Chekov

For Better Social Skills, Scientists Recommend a Little Chekov

The above-linked NY Times article, written by Pam Belluck on October 3rd, reminds us about the importance of reading to our children as a way to build social skills.  Of course, infants and toddlers are much too young for Chekov, Munro, Bronte or Austen, but there are plenty of other books that teach our littlest ones about their own emotions and coming to understand the emotions of others (One of my favorites for this is Owl Babies by Martin Waddell.).  Interestingly, if the same holds true for children as it holds true for adults, reading books that leave more to the imagination, that encourage children to make inferences about characters, and that give information about emotional nuances and complexities (Again, Owl Babies fits the bill on all three counts!) will help children read other’s body language better or gauge what they might be thinking.  These skills for empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence are often overlooked in the early years by parents, educators, child care providers and infant-toddler curriculum developers, but the recent research reveals their crucial importance for life success.

According to a study published Thursday in the journal Science, adults performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence “after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction.”  The study went like this:

After reading — or in some cases reading nothing — the participants took computerized tests that measure people’s ability to decode emotions or predict a person’s expectations or beliefs in a particular scenario. In one test, called “Reading the Mind in the Eyes,” subjects did just that: they studied 36 photographs of pairs of eyes and chose which of four adjectives best described the emotion each showed.

(You can participate in the research by following the link in the article or by clicking on “You can participate” here.)

Belluck writes:

The idea that what we read might influence our social and emotional skills is not new. Previous studies have correlated various types of reading with empathy and sensitivity. More recently, in a field called “theory of mind,” scientists have used emotional intelligence perception tests to study, for example, children with autism.


According to Nicholas Humphrey,  an evolutionary psychologist who has written extensively about human intelligence, and who was not involved in the research, “It’s a really important result.  That they would have subjects read for three to five minutes and that they would get these results is astonishing.”  Belluck further reveals that” Dr. Humphrey, an emeritus professor at Cambridge University’s Darwin College, said he would have expected that reading generally would make people more empathetic and understanding. “But to separate off literary fiction, and to demonstrate that it has different effects from the other forms of reading, is remarkable,” he said.”

Armed with this information, parents and caregivers should feel compelled to incorporate plenty of books that are character-driven, as are works of literary fiction, when reading to infants and toddlers.  Books that include characters that present a different version of reality, and who are not necessarily reliable, require children to participate more as a reader/listener in order to figure the character out.  As one of the researchers, David Comer Kidd, says “This is really something you have to do in real life.”  And, isn’t that what all learning is really about for infants and toddlers…to figure out how the real world works in order to be successful in it? 


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