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How you read to your kids can change their brains (for the better!)

Calah Alexander - published on 03/22/17

Neuroscientists explain a technique to help develop your child's "intellectual empathy."

As parents, we all know how important it is to read to our children. I don’t know about you, though, but when I’m on the 10,000th re-reading of I Want My Hat Back, it can get a little tedious. Doubly so for less amusing, more sentimental stories (The Giving Tree, anyone? Surely I can’t be the only parent to wish the tree would make like an Ent and chase the boy off in terror). Sometimes I try to liven it up a little by making the story interactive and asking my kids how they would feel in certain situations, but their answers are usually … uninspired. “Good,” “bad,” and “I hate apples anyway” are not exactly conversation-starters.

Read more: 7 Behaviors moms should model for their kids

Well, it seems that I’ve been doing it all wrong. According to neuroscientist Erin Clabough, rather than trying to teach my kids emotional empathy, what I should be aiming for is intellectual empathy—helping them imagine what they would do in a story rather than how they would feel. Clabough claims that letting your kids sort through conflict in a story first before seeing how the characters in the story resolve it “results in synaptic changes and strengthening of neuronal pathways in your child.” Basically, it teaches your child decision-making and problem-solving skills first, and then helps them understand the thoughts and motivations of others by showing them the various ways characters in the story solve the problems. This intellectual empathy can inspire children “to come up with ideas and even products that will inspire others.”

Good to know, although I might eschew this strategy in the case of I Want My Hat Back—the last thing my kids need to learn is intellectual apathy with a murderous bear.

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