Teaching Children to Read Emotions

Books can give children a window into the emotional world. Through the eyes of a character in a story, children can explore feelings and viewpoints other than their own. They can see the social and emotional consequences of different actions without having to live through those consequences. They can find a hero to emulate or a peer who understands what they’re going through. Reading or listening to books allows children to have an observer’s perspective on emotional experiences.

Some of my favorite times that I’ve spent with my children have involved reading aloud to them. I’ve enjoyed the coziness of snuggling with them while we read and the fun of getting engrossed in a good story together. But recent research by Celia Brownell and her colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh suggests that reading may also be a way that parents can help children learn about the emotional world.

The researchers invited parents (or other primary daytime caregivers) and their 18- to 30-month old children into the lab, and had them read two picture books about emotions: Feelings by Aliki and The Feelings Book by T. Parr. In two different studies, they found that parents who more often asked their toddler to think about the feelings shown in the books had children who more often and more quickly shared with or helped an adult. Other researchers have found that parents talking about emotions while reading picture books is linked to greater emotional understanding in toddlers.

This study was cross-sectional and correlational, so we can’t say for sure whether the parent’s emotion talk caused the children’s kindness. It’s possible that kind children are interested in feelings and that interest causes their parents to talk about feelings more. Or, maybe some other variable, such as emotional maturity causes both more talk about emotions and more kindness. To evaluate a causal relationship, we’d need experimental studies that involve giving kids a dose of feelings talk and seeing if it increases their kindness compared to kids who don’t get the feelings talk.

Nevertheless, the idea that talking about feelings while reading books together could be a vehicle for fostering children’s kindness is intriguing. Here are some examples of the types of questions that the researchers found were associated with greater kindness:

– “Is he happy now?”

– “Is he happy or sad?”

– “How is he feeling?”

– “Why is he sad?”

– “Is he sad now because he lost his ice cream?”

– “Does that make him happy?”

How might questions like these encourage kindness? It may be that talking about feelings with an adult helps kids gain greater understanding of how others’ emotional reactions, which enables them to be more aware of when someone needs help. Parents’ discussion of emotions might also communicate to children that feelings matter, and that we should respond in caring ways to others’ feelings.


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© Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD.