West Lafayette, Indiana - A Purdue University professor recommends reading, including books without words, to help children understand the thoughts and feelings of others, which can be particularly important during the holidays.
Judy Lysaker, associate professor in the College of Education, said understanding other people is becoming more and more important, especially at a time of year when emotions are at the forefront.
"I don't think we're doing as well as we used to in imagining what other people are thinking, feeling, believing and why," she said. "When feelings are intense and traditions emphasize those feelings, as happens during the holidays, it can be a particularly important time to understand the thoughts and feelings – the inner worlds – of others."
Reading, Lysaker said, is a vehicle for helping us all understand other people. Much of her research is in the area of wordless picture books in which the reader narrates the book's images and characters.
"You get to see how children make sense of characters, or if they attribute thoughts or feelings to them as they narrate orally," she said. "It's an indication that they're imagining the inner worlds and realties of others in the story."
Determining a person's thoughts, feelings and beliefs in a story is called social imagination. It allows a person to imagine the context clues such as gestures or eye contact that they would see in an actual conversation.
"Empathy and social imagination feed into the larger idea that we have a human capacity for understanding each other, and we ought to be developing that as a central part of our educational system. Reading is the perfect place to integrate that," Lysaker said.
For children, reading provides opportunities for knowing themselves and others. Reading helps to understand others because it lets children enter a vicarious social world where they can practice.
"There's no consequence if you mess up," Lysaker said. "It's a safe place to have a reaction that you might not be proud of having in a real circumstance, and you can catch yourself, take a look at your own feelings and discussion them with others – especially if you have a great teacher and a great classroom."
As we become more and more technologically advanced, Lysaker said people need to take time to ask what we understand about the world and other people.
"We are beginning to notice that social media is not necessarily improving our relationships with one another," she said. "We're not getting any better at imagining what other people are like because we're on social media all the time – especially kids in middle school and high school. It's almost as though the social media posts we consume and texts we receive become the reality of the other person, instead of us really trying to imagine their experience."