How to Build Empathy by Reading to Your Kids

a mom and daughter sit on the floor by books
We read together as a family every night. Sometimes we get so caught up in making it through the book that we never pause to discuss what we're reading. I recently ran across this article about how adding 30 seconds to your bedtime reading can foster empathy, and I had to try it.

The next night while reading, the main character of our story secured his family in a cellar vault and turned around for one last, great stand against the impending enemies. I paused and looked up to see how long it would take my doodling listeners to realize that I wasn't continuing.

As eyes started to meet mine, I saw the urgency with which they wanted me to continue. Don't leave Podo hanging!

  • Does he escape?
  • Does he live?
  • What will happen to him?

Instead of continuing the story, I asked some simple questions:

  • What would you do if you were Podo?
  • Do you think he should have turned around to defend his family?
  • Should he have tried to hide with them in the cellar?

The conversation that followed was brief, but the impact of that pause was significant. My children had stepped out of their own world and into the shoes of a brave character in the story and felt what he felt. They walked a mile in his shoes—or at least a couple of steps.

Cultivating Empathy Through Stories

Empathy is thought to be cultivated while one is being socialized, right? Homeschoolers are assumed to be at a disadvantage because they don't have interactions with hundreds of peers in a classroom setting. However, mere proximity doesn't automatically generate empathy. The ability to understand the feelings of another when you haven't experienced their circumstances requires imagination.

The good news is that reading together—and the imagination it triggers—is a powerful tool for cultivating empathy in your children. While the development of empathy can happen naturally over time, the concept of cultivating empathy through stories requires purposeful reading, intentional pauses, and continued practice over time.

This opportunity to learn empathy is yet another advantage of choosing a literature-rich homeschool curriculum such as BookShark.

How to Build Empathy by Reading to Your Kids

Strategic Story Selection

Sometimes I notice the need to offer specialized empathy training when my kids exhibit a lack of compassion in certain areas. I love to find books that center around that theme and naturally integrate them into our reading times. Even in simple stories like these, a timely pause can cultivate great conversations.

Choose a book, then at opportune moments during the reading, pause to ask, "What would you do?" and "What should [the character] do? Why?"

[Suggested grade level of each book is indicated in parentheses. Books included in BookShark programs are indicated in all caps.]

Books with Themes of Bravery and Courage

  • Thunder Cake by Patricia Polacco (K-2nd) - A grandmother helps a young girl overcome her fear of thunder.

  • Blueberries For Sal by Robert McCloskey (K-2nd) - A mother and child get separated while picking blueberries.

  • The Bears on Hemlock Mountain by Alice Dalgliesh (1st-4th) INCLUDED IN BOOKSHARK LEVEL 3 - A young boy heads over Hemlock mountain to borrow a pot from his aunt. Will he find bears on the mountain?

  • Call it Courage by Armstrong Sperry (5th-8th) INCLUDED IN BOOKSHARK LEVEL 5 - This Polynesian legend will grip the heart of children with a sense of adventure as it tells the story of a young boy who sets out to conquer his fear of the sea.

  • The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare (5th-9th) INCLUDED IN BOOKSHARK LEVEL 3 - A young man must defend his family's new homestead while he waits for his father to return from retrieving the rest of his family.

  • Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane (7th-12th) Young and naïve Henry joins the Union Army with visions of valor and heroism, but struggles to live up to expectations.

Books with Themes of Friendship

  • Corduroy by Don Freeman (K-2nd) - A small stuffed bear finds a home and a friend.

  • A Bargain For Frances by Russell Hoban (K-3rd) - Francis, swindled by her friend Thelma, gets even.

  • Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox (K-3rd) - Wilfrid, a young boy who lives near a retirement home, searches for his friend Miss Nancy's lost memory.

  • The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (3rd-8th) - Fickle Mr. Toad of Toad Hall becomes entranced by the faddish new motorcar; his friends endeavor to recall him to his senses and restore to him his dignity and place in the community.

  • The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall (4th-7th) - A motherless trio of sisters and their family dog befriend a rich but lonely boy one summer while vacationing in the rental cottage on his parents' estate.

  • The Chosen by Chaim Potok (8th-12th) - A coming of age story of two Jewish boys growing up in Brooklyn in the 1940s.

Books with Themes of  Social Injustice

  • Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes (K-3rd) - Chrysanthemum loves her unusual name until her peers tease her about it.

  • The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes (1st-4th) INCLUDED IN BOOKSHARK LEVEL K - Maggie, horrified when her silent complicity to classroom bigotry forces classmate Wanda from town, must live with her guilt and the unanswered question of Wanda's fate.

  • The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo (2nd-5th) - Desperaux, the only mouse to survive from his litter, continually disappoints both his mother and the rest of the mouse community with his nonconformity; still, he survives this rejection and fulfills his purpose.

  • Journey to Jo'burg: A South African Story by Beverly Naidoo (5th-7th) INCLUDED IN BOOKSHARK LEVEL 5 - A 13 year old girl and her younger brother journey across South Africa during the apartheid to get their mother when their baby sister becomes deathly ill.

  • Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (6th-9th) - Vagabond Huck and runaway slave Jim try to escape society by floating down the Mississippi River on a raft.

  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (8th-12th) INCLUDED IN BOOKSHARK LEVEL 100 -Two children, Scout and Jem, become both witnesses and victims to social bigotry and racism when their father, a court appointed lawyer, defends an innocent black man.

Whatever you choose to read with your family, try to pause occasionally and wait for the dissonance to set in on your listeners. It may only take a few seconds, but it will leave a lasting impression. Try it tonight during bedtime reading or this afternoon during reading time.

See BookShark Reading with History Programs