Want to Raise Successful Kids? Neuroscience Says Read to Them Like This (but Most Parents Don’t)

Want to Raise Successful Kids? Neuroscience Says Read to Them Like This (but Most Parents Don’t)


Bill Murphy Jr.

Read to young children in this way, and they’ll develop greater intellectual empathy — and become more successful.

If you’re like most parents, you’ll do just about anything you can to increase the odds that your kids will be successful.

So, what if I were to tell you there’s a simple thing you can to do to make it more likely that they’ll be successful in life — specifically by increasing the likelihood that they’ll learn to read other people, and even predict how they’ll react?

What’s more, while this parenting practice might be a bit more time-consuming than some alternatives, it can also be a lot of fun and increase your bond with your children.

We’re talking about the way that parents read to their young kids. Neuroscientists say there’s a trick that can make the daily bedtime ritual (one my wife and I enjoy with our daughter, and that you might well enjoy with your kids, too) far more effective and beneficial.

Here’s the background — plus how it works and why:

First off, of course, read to your kids.

Let’s start with the basics. Pediatricians have been preaching this for a while, and the American Academy of Pediatrics has been officially recommending it since 2014: Parents need to read to their children from the earliest ages.

Infants, even? Yep. While the youngest babies might not understand your words, the impact of your reading aloud to them is thought to have at least two benefits:

  • bonding over verbal exchanges between parent and child, and
  • demonstrating how communication itself works.

Of course, the advantages of reading become even more obvious as children grow a bit older — and they continue to cascade. It’s one of the lessons that I heard again and again in compiling my free e-book, How to Raise Successful Kids.

“The stronger their language skills are when they reach kindergarten, the more prepared they are to be able to read,” Brown University professor Pamela High told the PBS NewsHour. “The better they read, the more likely they will graduate from high school.”

From there, they’ll be more likely to achieve higher education, enjoy positive familial relationships, and attain economic security. (No pressure, but it really does start at a young age.)

Next, read with your kids.

So, reading to your kids is important — but doing so is really only “the bare minimum,” according to neuroscientist Erin Clabough. Instead, the premium model to follow might be summarized in a subtly different way: Read with your kids, not just to them.

The pitfall here — something we’re all sometimes guilty of — is that reading often becomes a rote bedtime ritual. It’s something that parents do to “make [our kids] sleepy, or so they can have something to write down on their school reading logs,” Clabough writes in Psychology Today. Unfortunately, doing it that way is only marginally different from simply sitting them in front of the television.

“We’ve been sucked in by the plot, and we’re dying to know what happens. But we’re still on the outside, watching someone else make decisions. The real magic happens inside our own heads when we try on someone else’s life,” Clabough writes.

OK, so how do you “read on the inside”? And what exactly is the goal? In short, it has to do with developing intellectual empathy.

Developing intellectual empathy.

Clabough refers us to research that David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano of The New School in New York did three years ago, demonstrating that people who read literary fiction develop better intellectual empathy — meaning they can learn to better understand the thoughts and motivations of others.

Reading literary fiction might be a little advanced for young children, but Clabough suggests that we can spur the same kind of development in children by reading with them in a way that encourages them to put themselves in the story — even simple stories.

It’s important to note that we’re talking here about developing intellectual empathy, as opposed to emotional empathy.

Intellectual empathy is the ability to perceive objectively how other people see and experience things — from a distance. Emotional objectivity is more about the ability to actually see and feel things the way others do.

Both can be beneficial, but to summarize, intellectual empathy might be more useful — it helps people predict how others will react to them, can inspire them to come up with ideas and even products that will inspire others, and doesn’t carry with it the risk of decision paralysis or inaction that emotional empathy can.

Choose their own adventures.

If intellectual empathy is the goal, here’s the strategy. Instead of simply reading straight through a book with your children, Clabough suggests embracing dramatic pauses and interrupting the story at appropriate moments to encourage your children to put themselves into the minds of the characters. Let them sort through the conflict before the characters do.

Do you remember the Choose Your Own Adventure stories? It’s sort of like that, only done with any book that you might read to a child.

As an example, Clabough cites Are You My Mother, a classic children’s book (one I’ve read to my daughter about a zillion times) about a baby bird who hatches while his mother is out foraging for food.

“What would you do, if you were the baby bird?” she suggests asking your young child. “Even for books you’ve read together 216 times, your child can come up with a different way the character can react, a different decision the character can make.”

Of course this doesn’t mean you have to interrupt every story every few pages and ask your child to rewrite it. But embracing the practice, so that sprinkling it into your child’s reading experience becomes effortless for both of you, can lead to real benefits.

Far-off dividends.

What kind of benefits? Well, like a lot of parenting choices, we’re talking about vectors here: small choices now that can have ridiculously outsized effects on a child’s future success.

And of course, we’re not saying that if you don’t read to your children enough, they’re destined to failure. But the medium- and long-term benefits of reading with your children in this manner are myriad.

Educational studies suggest that it’s reflecting on a learning experience afterward that truly inspires growth, Clabough says. And encouraging children to make decisions while they’re reading amounts to decision-making practice, which “results in synaptic changes and strengthening of neuronal pathways in your child.”

At the end of the day, you’re teaching your children not only to become better readers, but more effective people — intellectually empathetic people who have “better relationships and lower divorce rates,” she writes, and who often turn out to become “better bosses, co-workers, negotiators, and friends.”


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