We’ve done a couple of episodes on reading by now; episode 3 (which seems so long ago!) asked whether you might have missed the boat on teaching your toddler to read. Of course, we know that you’ve only missed the boat on that if you think that sitting your child in front of a video so they can recite the words they see without really understanding them counts as “reading.”
Much more recently in episode 48 we talked with Dr. Laura Froyen about the benefits of shared reading with your child and how to do that according to best practices from the research literature.
Those of you who subscribe to my newsletter will recall that I’ve been working on an episode on storytelling for months now. Part of the reason it’s taking so long is that books on storytelling technique say to use original stories wherever possible because the language in them is so much richer, but if you’ve ever read something like an original fairytale you know they can be pretty gory, and even the most harmless ones actually contain some pretty adult themes if you read between the lines.
So I wanted to know: what do children really learn from stories? How do they figure out that we want them to learn morals from stories but not that animal characters walk on two legs and wear clothes? How do they generalize that knowledge to the real world? And are there specific types of books that promote learning?
Join me in a conversation with Dr. Deena Weisberg of The University of Pennsylvania as she helps us to help our children learn through reading!
Other shows mentioned in this episode
Cheung, C.S., Monroy, J.A., & Delany, D.E. (2017). Learning-related values in young children’s storybooks: An investigation in the United States, China, and Mexico. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 48(4), 532-541.
Ganea, P.A., Ma, L., & DeLoache, J.S. (2011). Young children’s learning and transfer of biological information from picture books to real animals. Child Development 82(5), 1421-1433.
Heath, S.B. (1982). What no bedtime story means: Narrative skills at home and school. Language in Society 11(1), 49-76.
Hopkins, E.J., & Weisberg, D.S. (2017). The youngest readers’ dilemma: A review of children’s learning from fictional sources. Developmental Review 43, 48-70.
Ostrov, J.M., Gentile, D.A., & Mullins, A.D. (2013). Evaluating the effect of educational media exposure on aggression in early childhood. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 34, 38-44.
Read, K., Macauley, M., & Furay, E. (2014). The Seuss boost: Rhyme helps children retain words from shared storybook reading. First Language 34(4), 354-371.
Hi, this is Jen. Before we start on today’s episode, I just wanted to take a minute to let you know that as part of my research for this episode on what children learn through reading fictional books, I ended up looking at a lot of different kinds of books for children aged roughly between toddlerhood and elementary school, and I compiled them into a list of more than 100 books that you can use to support your children’s learning on a host of subjects related to math, science, empathy, being persistent in the face of failure, multicultural issues, and many other topics as well. If you already subscribed to the show and my website, then you actually already got the list with your newsletter from last week. Unfortunately, subscribing through itunes or other platforms doesn’t count because I don’t get any information from them on how to reach you, so if you don’t already subscribe or if you’re subscribed through another platform, then head on over to YourParentingMojo.com forward slash reading books and sign up on that page and then the report will be emailed right to you. Thanks again for listening and enjoy the interview with Dr Deena Weisberg.
Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. We’ve done a couple episodes on reading by now. Episode three, which seems so long ago, was one where we asked whether you might have missed the boat on teaching your toddler to read. Of course, we know you’ve only missed the boat on that if you think that sitting your child in front of a video so they can recite the words they see without really understanding them counts as reading much more recently in episode 48, we talked with Dr Laura Frye and about the benefits of shared reading with your child and how to do that according to best practices from the research literature I’ve mentioned to those of you who subscribe to my newsletter that I had been working on an episode related to storytelling for a while as in telling stories without books and also making up stories, but I realized I needed a bridge from where we’ve been to where we want to go.
I wanted to know more about what children learn from the stories we read to them, and boy, do we have someone who can help us with that today. We’re here with Dr. Deena Weisberg, a senior fellow in the Department of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr Weisberg earned her PhD in Psychology from Yale University and in her postdoc work at Rutgers University and also at Temple with Dr Roberta Golinkoff, with whom we spoke in episode 10 on her book becoming brilliant when I started researching what children learn from reading, I found an absolutely epic paper that Dr Weisberg co-authored with five pages of references in tiny text that describes and how children learn from reading fiction, so I knew we’d found the right person to speak with us. She’s also the parent of a five year old and an 18 month old, and has gamely agreed to talk with us today even though her nanny called in sick, so she’s in the thick of this parenting thing with us as well. Welcome Dr Weisberg.
Thank you so much, Jen. It’s really a pleasure to be here and talk with you this afternoon.
So it wasn’t until I started reading your paper that I realized what a really weird and strange thing it is that we ask of children. We read fiction to them and particularly fiction with some kind of message that we want them to internalize. And in your paper, you give the example of, I hope I’m saying this correctly, the Berenstain Bears visit to the dentist, which we assume is designed to help young children understand and get comfortable with what happens when they go to the dentist, but somehow we don’t want the children to retain the ideas that were bears wear clothes, live in houses, and speak like people. So how do children sort out these ideas when we read these stories or do they fully sort them out?
It’s a really interesting set of questions. And the first thing I want to point out is that it’s not just children that have this problem. So one of the things that fascinates me about this area of research is that this is something that we all do from very little children way on up to us grown people have the same problem. It’s called the reader’s dilemma is what you just described. It’s the idea of how do you sort out which parts of a fictional story need to remain nearly fictional within that fictional world in which parts of the story can fruitfully be applied to the real world. So I just want to start by pointing out that that’s not a problem that goes away. So it is a problem that we get…well in some cases we get better at solving. There’s some very famous cases and people making these sorts of confusions right up through adulthood that I enjoy talking about.
But in terms of children, there are really two main ways that children learn how to sort through this readers dilemma. One is that they use their existing background knowledge. So if you have a book where a character does something that they already know to be impossible, like blip out of existence in one place and suddenly reappear somewhere else, you know by some people would say even in infancy, but certainly by three, four or five years old, they know that that’s not something that can really happen. And so they’re pretty good at figuring out that those sorts of events should remain just in the fictional story. Now the problem with that method of sorting things out of course, is that their background knowledge is not as rich or deep or accurate as adults background knowledge. So that is where some confusion’s can sometimes creep in or they can start doubting a little bit their background knowledge if something is presented very vividly in a story, but that’s the first method and usually for the most part it works pretty well and also again the method that we tend to use as adults. You know, we sort of check it against your background knowledge. Does that pass the smell test? Is that something that seems like it happened in reality, you know? Okay, I’ll let that through. And then the second method is that they rely on the adults around them like they do for so many things. So often it’s the responsibility of parents, teachers or older siblings or other trusted adults to sort things out for kids in those cases where, I don’t want to say that they get entirely confused, but where they might start having doubts based on what they’re reading or seeing in a video.
Okay. So a couple things there. Firstly, you’ve tantalized us so effectively with those stories of how adults experience the readers dilemma. Can you give us one or two of those fabulous examples?
Yeah, absolutely. One of my favorite examples is from The Da Vinci Code; when that book was published, it’s now a number of years ago, so I’m not sure if your readers will remember, but the point of The Da Vinci Code is that the hero and heroine are on the search for the Holy Grail and there are some clues left in the text that the holy grail is located in this particular church in Scotland and the New York Times sent a reporter to this particular church and the staff, there reported this spike in visitor ship, that there are people who would go there having read the book and they would come there seriously reporting that they were looking for the Holy Grail. Now this is a little bit different than, Oh, you know, I heard about this interesting place in a book. Let me go see it in real life because it really does exist.
You know, they said there certainly was that and they got a bit of fame from the book and they saw some tourism increased because of just the mention of the place. But there were also people that the staff reported engaging with were very, very seriously engaged in the process of hunting for the grail based on the clues in this fictional book, you know, and that’s fairly extreme, right? You know, so these are mostly American tourists. This was a report from the Times as I said, so you have to go through some considerable time and expense to hunt for something on the basis of, you know, what on the cover it stated very clearly that this was a novel. So that’s one of the more famous cases from recent years. This is also something that happens a lot with actors and actresses. So you know, you watch a movie or an actor or actress will play a similar role a few times and people start thinking that that’s what that person is like in real life.
And I’m not saying that’s always false. That might be the case, but there are lots of famous cases like in the sixties, I believe one of the first medical dramas that was shown on TV Dr Marcus Welby md when the actor reported that he just got tons of mail asking him medical questions, you know, they thought that, well he might know something about medicine because he plays one on TV, which is ludicrous if you think about it, but again, it points out this really interesting continuity between what children are doing and the ways that they’re sorting things out and what adults are doing.
Yeah, that makes a ton of sense. As you were explaining about The Da Vinci Code, I was thinking the church in Scotland should have had the Monty Python and the Holy Grail video playing on repeat once they got there….
Oh, that would have been brilliant. No – it’s not here. Wrong castle. And then we’ll just arrest everybody. And then stop.
Yeah, right then and there. Okay. Well cool. Thank you for that. That makes a lot of sense. So you said that there are two ways that children start to sort this out for themselves. The first is experience and it makes a lot of sense to me if they’ve never had the experience of walking through a wall, they sort of assume that nobody can walk through walls, which I guess is a reasonable way of thinking about the world. And the second thing you said is that they look to their parents to help sort this out, but I’m just thinking about the dentist thing. I might read that…I haven’t read the book, but I might read it to my daughter to explain what the dentist is like, but I wouldn’t necessarily go ahead and say. But you know, bears don’t really wear clothes and live in houses and I’m not sure she would ask me, “Mama do bears were clothes?” Because she’s never seen a bear. She has no experience with that. So how do they make that leap and how to parents help that process or, or it seems like I’m not helping that process.
Well, on the one hand I would say to you and to your listeners, this is not something to worry about.
Yeah. No, I’m not worried. I’m just curious.
So you know, kids don’t get to the age of 10 or 12 and still harbors sort of deep confusion about bears living in houses because again, the two processes are still at work, right? So your daughter might not have seen a bear, you know, live and in person, but she’s seen lots of animals. She probably knows kind of what a bear is from pictures and generally knows that they don’t tend to speak like humans or they’ve seen dogs even if you don’t have a pet at home or you’ve seen them out on the street and so you have enough experience with nonhuman animals I should say, to know that they don’t speak like we do or live in houses or wear clothes. So there is some of that prior knowledge that’s able to kick in there. And also on the converse, yes, it’s true that you’re not necessarily telling your child explicitly, okay, in this story, the bears live in houses, but they don’t really live in houses.
But what you are doing is you’re emphasizing the message that you do want her to get from that story. So by the very things that you are saying and are not saying, so the things that you are emphasizing as opposed to things you’re not emphasizing, will send the message what’s important in this story for her to take out. And I know a lot of parents do that sort of thing. They’ll pick up books like this or you know, books on having a younger sibling for instance, and spend a lot of time talking about the theme from that book that you feel is really important for your child. And so they’ll learn that that’s the direction in which they should take their interpretation of the book based on your emphasis.
Okay, got it. Yeah. And so, so often in parenting it seems we find that by focusing on one thing, we sort of automatically don’t focus on something else and that that focus of attention is a very powerful tool and signal to our children.
Yeah, exactly. And kids are pretty savvy about that. They learn to figure it out.
All right. So once the child has accepted a piece of information from a story as real, we often want them to generalize that knowledge out to the real world. So if they, for example, read a story about someone in a story resisting temptation, we might want them to learn that they themselves can use these similar strategies to resist temptation. So can children make this generalization leap? I mean I guess they do, but when, when do they start to do it reliably?
That’s a great question and that I think is precisely at the heart of what makes this whole process so tricky, both because it’s not the part that parents remember is the tricky part and also because it’s much more difficult. So. So in some sense the easy part is sorting out, you know, are dentists real as opposed to are talking bears real. So they’ve got that and they generally get that pretty well if it’s not too subtle and if they’re not being fooled by the Da Vinci Code, you know, they get the basic difference between things that can happen in reality and things that can’t by about four or five years old. The transfer piece that you’re talking about here, that is where things really get difficult for children is that it’s very, very difficult and not just in terms of learning from stories in terms of any kind of learning, right.
To take information from one context and figure out what other contexts does this apply to you or should I be applying this to and that. I think they’re almost entirely reliant on some kind of adult guidance. There’s a couple of studies that we talk about in the paper that you mentioned. One famous one is titled Be Nice to Three Legged Dogs, so this was an episode of a Clifford TV show where they introduce a three legged dog and for awhile, you know, Clifford and his friend spend a little bit of time being afraid of the dog because the dog is different or not knowing how to treat this three legged dog, but you know, in the end they discovered that the three legged dog is just like them and wants to be friends and they all go play ball. Now to an adult watching this, right? This is bleedingly obvious what you’re trying to get the child to learn, right?
That people with disabilities are no different from you or me, but look how they’re doing it, right? First of all, they got a bunch of talking dogs, so you’ve got to extrapolate from dogs to people and then you have a three legged dog and that three legged dog is supposed to be a stand-in for a human with a disability, which is obviously a different disability because we don’t have a three legged humans…
Right – and a wide range of disabilities.
Exactly. You know, or if you want to think even more broadly, you know, any sort of member of an outgroup or anybody with any sort of physical difference from you could also be included because they’re just like you, et cetera. So I wouldn’t give too much of a hard time if they don’t get that broad of a message. But what the title of the paper about this study was reporting was that children would watch this video and they would ask children, you know, what was the lesson here?
What was this trying to teach you? And it was trying to teach them to be nice to three legged dogs, which is lovely, and of course we should be nice to three legged dogs, but that’s a remarkably narrow interpretation of the message of this particular educational TV show. So kids have a lot of trouble with that. They have trouble with that explicitly. So answering a direct question about what do you think this was trying to teach you or what is the message here? Probably up til about nine or 10.
Maybe even later than that. Yeah. Which to me again on my studies are primarily with children in the preschool years and 10 is like geriatrics to me. Like I don’t even know what’s going on there, but yeah, this is really, really difficult challenge to try to say this was the lesson or this was the message. Even for something that to an adult looks as obvious as that Clifford episode. Now that doesn’t mean that they’re not getting anything from it. Right? Again, that’s asking them to report directly and explicitly on what they’ve learned, which has its own difficulties, but there’s very, very few studies that have actually looked at how these kinds of pieces of educational TV, particularly ones with these socio-emotional messages. How those might be impacting children’s behavior at a younger age.
Yeah. Yeah. We’ll come back to the TV in a minute, but first I want to talk through something that I experienced in real time while I was developing the questions for this episode. So my daughter and I had read a book called Frog and Toad Together and we actually found the book because in my newsletter a few weeks ago, I referenced a study that had looked at stories that sort of purport to include information about a learning disposition. And so I wrote to the researcher and got a list of the books and this was on that list, and so I just got it from the library to see what it was like. And so it’s. It’s a collection of I think three or four short stories and in one of the stories a toad dreams about doing these amazing things and he’s boasting about them on stage and as he’s doing that, his friend frog seems to get smaller and smaller and, and so the moral of the story seems to be if you make yourself really big by comparing yourself with others, then you know, your friends seem to get smaller and smaller and eventually it seems like they go away and then he wakes up from his dream and his friend frog is right there.
But around the same time, my three and a half year old went through a growth spurt and she kept walking around saying, I’m bigger than you. I’m bigger than you. So I came into school to pick her up early one day and I heard her say it and I heard a teacher say, you know, not everybody wants to be reminded all the time about how you’re bigger than them. And her response was, “But I am.” And so in the car on the way home, we just talked about the frog and toad story and I reminded her how frog feels really small when toad is boasting about being so amazing. And as far as I know, you know, I’m not there all the time with her, at her daycare. But as far as I know she hasn’t been talking about that so much. But we had read that book before she started doing all that and so clearly she had not taken that lesson from the book. And I’m wondering from what you were saying, it seems as though my scaffolding of that process, my helping her to see the connection between the two may have been critical to helping her see that connection. And I’m wondering is it really until nine or 10 that I have to keep making it that explicit?
I love that story. There’s so much going on there.
Okay. Tell me about it.
To answer your first question, I think I completely agree that it was your scaffolding and your reframing of her behavior in light of what you read in the story. That really helps her to make that connection that she might not have been able to make on her own at this age and I also think it’s really interesting that what happens in the story is that toad gets physically larger and that’s the part that she seemed to take to heart and was talking about how she physically bigger than people around her. Whereas the story, again, like the Clifford example I gave meant it as kind of a metaphor that when you’re boasting, when when you’re self aggrandizing, you’re making yourself bigger, but in a kind of metaphorical sense and that’s the message that you shouldn’t try to belittle your friends. Right? We have all this metaphorical language that we use to talk about it, but that wasn’t really on her mind at all when she was interpreting the story.
It was really about the physical size and so I think that’s really interesting and that points again to this difficulty with transfer and with how abstractly are you meant to interpret the lesson from a story and I think again, your help with that really made a huge difference there. In terms of how long you’re going to have to keep doing that. Again, the research just – we don’t know yet. What we do know is that again, when you ask children to tell you in some sort of explicit verbal way, what was this trying to teach you that they have difficulty with until about age nine or 10. Obviously earlier than that there is something that’s going in there, getting some sort of message out of these books. Either they’re getting the correct one and they just can’t articulate it properly or they’re not quite getting the message or perhaps they don’t even understand that books are trying to teach them something along these lines. Particularly with these kinds of more subtle socio-emotional lessons that they’re meant to learn. It’s very, very difficult to teach that under any circumstances and we don’t quite know what the missing piece is, you know, to be on the safe side, I would say to keep talking to your child about that and seeing kind of what they’re thinking about the story and what they’re noticing about it. It’s also just an interesting exercise. Kids just notice things in stories that never would have crossed my mind.
Yeah, for sure.
So you know, finding out where they’re at and how they’re interpreting things. Then seeing if you can shape that in a way that’s going to let them get the message from the story that you intend them to get and that’s a good way to have a conversation as well and to try to find out, well, what did you take from this? What did you find important or moving or interesting or provocative about this story and it may be totally different than what you would be adult found interesting or evocative about the story, but that’s a really good way to engage your child with conversation around literature, which is healthy for any number of reasons.
Yeah. It makes me feel as though we should perhaps not jump straight from, okay, the end of the book and now let’s go and have bath time, and take a minute to reflect on the book.
There is a time and place for that as well. We read books for any number of purposes. If learning is what you have in mind, that I think having those conversations are good, but if it’s bedtime that’s important.
Yeah, and also just went to get back to the idea of, of her making comparisons lest I come off as a too amazing parent. I think we actually probably partly set up the problem in the first place because we saw a friend of hers that we hadn’t seen for a long time who was bigger than her last time we saw them and all of a sudden my daughter was bigger and we said, oh look, you’ve grown. You’re bigger than your friend.
And so she was off to the races with that one.
Yes. Plus Frog and Toad and I think yes, she definitely took what lessons were to be there. So a little course correction required. So. But I want to go back to something you mentioned Clifford the Big Red Dog and who seems to pop up in the literature every once in a while.
And so your paper talks about how both hearing books being read and watching TV is linked with improvements in IQ, verbal abilities, school readiness, social skills and motivation. Although I’m sort of assuming that a lot of the TV benefits come from conversations with parents afterwards.
And I’m specifically also thinking of Dr Jamie Ostrov’s work and I think he actually looked at Clifford the Big Red Dog and when he is looking at a show that is giving examples of children bullying and then the overall message at the end is it’s not nice to bully. What children actually take out of that is they learn six new ways of bullying.
And so I’m curious about whether the same thing holds true for books and whether we need to be really cautious of negative messages that get resolved by the end of the book that the child may end up taking out just the negative message.
Yeah. It’s such an important question and I feel so deeply ambivalent about this because I am adamantly against trying to sanitize children’s literature. I think all of the movements in that direction and that you know, we shouldn’t sully their poor, innocent little minds with depictions of violence and whatnot, I think it is going completely the wrong way and really doesn’t respect the complexity of their emotional lives. You know, children are experiencing these big kind of scary emotions, particularly around the ages of three and four. They’re figuring out where their places in the world and I think having literature that reflects that and that allows them to express and experience those big feelings is incredibly important. On the other hand, exactly what you say is the case. A lot of the times children will focus on those parts of the story that they found negative or emotionally arousing in some way and the learn different ways to bully and not necessarily that bullying is wrong.
So this Clifford story that I was talking about with the three legged dog, a lot of the beginning of the story had the characters expressing fear or distrust of the three legged dog and when the children were interviewed afterwards, a lot of them remembered that part very vividly. That three legged dogs are something strange and something to be afraid of and they ended up being kind of negatively aroused by that media rather than taking away the positive message and that again, it makes perfect sense if you just look at the proportion of time in that episode that was spent on the negative emotions that was spent on exploring these characters fear and then at the end like, oh, it’s okay. They don’t have to be afraid. You know, just looking at amount of time spent on those different emotions explains possibly why children are are more focused on it.
So I don’t know exactly which side to come down on here because I think both sides of this argument have some merit, but I think perhaps if more emphasis can be placed on those positive messages at the end to mitigate perhaps the negative ones that were happening earlier and have a little bit of a better balance. You might end up with better results. And indeed the researchers did find somewhat better results when they gave children an edited version of the Clifford TV show, with some of that fear…the fearful language and character reactions removed.
Okay, so in an ideal world, we’ll send the show back to the editors and say, “can you cut out some of the parts that we don’t like?” In the real world it seemed as though again, it becomes the parent’s responsibility to scaffold the children’s understanding of what they want the child to take out of that book through a conversation. Is that right?
Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. And we’ve been talking about but well, books and TV a little bit. I think parents tend to think about books as a way to do that because it’s much easier to read it through with your child and pause and ask questions, but of course you can do that for TV as well.
And there are a lot of benefits of just doing that in general. And so another recent study that was done on Daniel Tiger and looking at whether children took the appropriate messages about these kinds of positive social and emotional skills from Daniel Tiger. Sometimes they did and the children who did seem to be in houses that have those conversations a lot about any kind of media – books or TV shows – so not necessarily sitting down and having that conversation about that particular show that they were watching, but just starting to get them to understand that when we absorb media we need to be asking ourselves questions and having discussions about what’s going on that kind of puts them in the right mindset for being able to absorb these lessons.
Okay. Alright. And I want to come back to something you said about sanitizing and censoring books and I’m thinking about violence because this is really the thing that made me realize the issue that made me realize that I couldn’t yet go straight to storytelling without understanding this issue. So a lot of the books that I’m reading about telling traditional stories, advocate for the parents seeking out older, less sanitized versions of fairytales because the language is so much richer. But what I’m finding when I read these is they’re pretty rough. They’re violent; there are all kinds of things that you would not necessarily want your child exposed to. And a friend of mine was absolutely horrified when I pointed out that his seven year old who had brought a book to a gathering of families and she was reading a version of Cinderella in which the stepsisters cut off her toes so her feet will fit in the glass shoes and by the end the step sisters get their eyes pecked out by birds. And Cinderella is one of the tamer fairytales. But on the flip side of that, you know, I started reading Dean Koontz Books and he’s an adult suspense thriller writer and I think I was probably about 11 or 12 and those are filled with gun violence and all kinds of other unsavory activities. I don’t consider myself any the worse for wear. So I’m curious about the right balance between protecting our children appropriately and allowing them to just read whatever they want.
Yeah, I think that that is the question. And violence is always the place where it comes up, and I think once you start looking for it, it’s really everywhere. So if you want to find basically the vast majority of the literature looking at what children learn from fictional media are focused on violence naturally because of this question, what are we giving our children? You know, we’ll just have them forget about having them watch violent movies. We’ll just give them some cartoons. But you know, I watch Looney Toons religiously as a child and those are all about violence. I mean, think about what happens in your average Road Runner and Coyote looney tunes cartoon. I mean he gets smashed with anvils and they run off cliffs and you know, there’s a lot going on there
And you turned out just fine!
I’m just fine. Look at me. It’ll all be okay. It’s facetious. I do have a little bit of that, but it’s because I want to reframe your question not necessarily to what balance of violent versus nonviolent nurses pro-social media children should get, but to ask about what kind of context they should get it in. So I think the question is really, it’s not necessarily about the media and not that the media itself is entirely irrelevant, but I think the much more important piece of the puzzle is the one that we’ve been talking about when we’ve talked about learning the rest of the lessons children are learning from media positive and negative is what are you doing as an adult to create a context in which children can appropriately interpret what they’re hearing and what they’re seeing.
What do you mean by that? How does that work practically?
So it’s really a matter of making it clear first of all, as we were talking about before, which parts of this story can and cannot happen in real life. So if there’s a violent episode that happens on a show or there are guns or knives or swords or whatever, I think it is important to be clear with your child and be honest and say yes, those are things that can happen in real life. These are things that can really hurt people. And then to work with them to think about what the actual real-life implications of those kinds of things are so it doesn’t happen the way that it happens in cartoons or you know, in children’s books or something where all of the, you know, a lot of the violence or death for example, might be quite sanitized depending on what you’re reading, but you really have a conversation with them about this is something that can really happen.
Here is what happens when there are guns around here is what the process of death looks like and it’s a part of life or however you want to be talking about it is that you can take the story as a jumping off point for having those conversations and for making sure that your child understands what is and is not appropriate behavior in real life. I will confess at this point that I got myself into a bit of trouble here because again, trying to expose my child to classic literature because I’m basically just a nerd at heart and we were reading treasure island by Robert Louis Stevenson, which is, you know, a classic book. And I remember reading it and loving it when I was growing up. So he’s a bit younger. He’s five, so we’re reading it together and dear God, I mean all of these pirates, they’re horrible and they’re my five year old now knows, you know, a bunch of different words for knives and swords and they carry cutlasses and they carry blunderbusses and they carry revolvers.
“And what do they do with those, Mommy?”
He’s not confused about what they’re for. And so I’m trying to again, to have a conversation about, well historically here’s what pirates were doing and the reason that they had those kinds of weapons is because they were stealing things from other people. That’s what it means to be a pirate, you know? What do you think about that? Is that okay? And so trying to turn those conversations into something productive if possible. So I’m not sure exactly where to go with the Grimm’s fairy tales because those are rather horribly violent. But I think those can launch a different and possibly more interesting conversation about literature because there are different versions of those stories. So I’m going to guess that this seven year old, who was reading the Grimm’s fairy tales, was already familiar with Cinderella and probably had already seen the Disney movie, for example, or had heard a version of the story, but there are so many different versions of that story.
I mean even Disney now has the animated version that was done and I think in the fifties and now has just put out sort of a live action retelling of that story. Um, and that’s also a really interesting place to try to engage your somewhat older child in conversation about what it means to be a piece of literature and how people reinterpret it and why it might be told in one way is as opposed to the other. So again, that’s a bit more advanced, but that’s also something that’s really interesting about the way in which these stories occur and recur within our culture.
Okay. Alright. So it’s not the end of the world if your child is exposed to some kind of violence. I guess I’m trying to summarize here a take home lesson, but it’s really important to have conversations about what you’re reading.
Yes. Okay. And now that you put it that simply, it sounds incredibly obvious. You know, I feel proud of myself for doing research in this area, but you as the parent who’s going to set up your expectations for how your child is going to behave and what it is they’re going to do with the information they’re receiving from these various sources.
Okay. And I’m sort of extrapolating that to my next question, which is about how we use books to address broader societal issues like racism and I have been preparing for an episode on Carol Dweck work related to fixed and growth mindsets. And if this is a non sequitur that’s going to come together. But one of her research papers showed that she created a dramatic shift in children’s mindsets by changing just three words and she said, you must have been smart at these problems or you must have worked hard at those problems. And by going in one condition or the other, she was able to really shift the way children thought about whether their intelligence was fixed or not and yet your research cites – and there’s a lot of research out there showing that children can distort or reject information that they read that doesn’t fit their existing knowledge, like stereotypical knowledge of how girls behave. And so what I’m trying to think through is, is reading books about racism and people of different races an effective way of addressing these kinds of topics or. I mean, it seems to me from what we’ve been talking about that the conversation that happens after the book is if not as critical as the book, but more critical than reading the book in the first place. Is that right?
Yeah, I think that’s right. And I think just to take that last point first, that’s a conversation that I sometimes have. You know, if I’m going to be emphasizing this conversation that happens after the book or around the book as being so important, why bother with the book in the first place? Why not just have a conversation with your child about racism or you know, about gender stereotypes or something like that, you know, of course I’m all for that as well. Books provide some really good context for having that conversation. So not to be forgetting their role is just a jumping off point or a point of commonality, but also for the reasons that you suggested and the rest of your question is that books can provide exposure and also just pure visual exposure to people who might look different from your child or people who might behave differently from your child.
So you know, a lot of the recommendations about let’s just take racism as an example is just to expose your child to lots and lots of different kinds of faces or to people who just look different or people who behave a lot like your child or have a lot of the same interests or who happened to look different or dress differently or have a different accent or something like that. And I think that’s a really excellent way that books can start to expand children’s categories of what a friend could look like or what kinds of things girls can do and so on. Now that’s a long, slow process because it’s fighting a rather uphill battle against the information that they’re getting in the rest of society. But that’s a good thing that books can do. Or other forms of media as well. Obviously on the connection to Carol Dweck’s work, I think it’s interesting that there are a lot of differences between what she’s doing and what I’m talking about in terms of learning from fictional media.
For one thing, that kind of praise that children are getting in her studies are coming directly to the child about some work that they’ve actually just done in the real world. So I think the context there is very different from something in a book that might be subtle and difficult for children to get. It might again only be a difference of three words, but it’s not as directly focused on them as the information that they’re getting in one of Dweck’s experiments. So I think that’s important to keep in mind as well, that yes, children are attuned to these subtleties and that can make a big difference under some circumstances, but you also have to look at where those subtleties are being expressed. They might miss it if it’s in the course of the book and it’s about a character who isn’t them or they’re paying attention something else within the context of that book. Whereas they’re much more likely to be paying attention to every little word when they are being praised for their own work. So I don’t think there’s necessarily a contradiction here. I think it’s a matter of how that information is getting to children.
Yeah. And I just want to be 100 percent sure that we are 100 percent clear here and talking about how important it is for parents to have this kind of conversation. And as you were speaking, I was reminded of a study and I forget the exact details of it, but it was an intervention designed to attempt to reduce the level of bias in thinking of young children. And the parents signed up for it and they got these special books that explicitly addressed race and the parents would read the books and not have any conversation, and the researchers were saying, and these were parents who were involved – who signed up to be involved in a study to reduce their children’s bias and they don’t talk about it with their children even though they know that this is an explicit goal of the study. They’re ignoring this and don’t have the conversation. So imagine what is probably going on or not going on in families where we assume that if we just don’t talk about it, that it is a nonissue. So the conversation is critical.
That is really important and it might be the case – in defense of those parents in the study. It might be the case that they thought, well, these books were designed to talk about racism.
They’re covering it!
Exactly. So I’ll just read my child the book and then they’ll get it and they’ll have it covered. Again, thinking back to that Clifford example that I gave at the beginning as an adult, it’s incredibly obvious what the child is supposed to be learning from this and it’s very difficult to remember if something is obvious to you, it might not be as obvious to your three or four or five year old child. So it could be the parents thought that they were doing their duty by exposing their children to this media that was supposed to combat racism, but it’s equally important to have the conversation and to use the book as a stepping stone for having those conversations and not assuming that your child will just get it from observing the media.
So sort of sticking on that topic of race for a little bit. This is kind of a long question because it requires a bit of explanation. I want to step outside the idea of just reading stories and consider the broader issue of setting children up for success in school and life. And as part of masters work for my master’s in psychology, I started reading Shirley Brice Heath’s work and she’s an English professor at Stanford and she’s also worked in linguistics and in the eighties she spent time in three communities in North Carolina. One was a middle class town, one was a working class town with Black residents and the other was a working class town with White residents. And she noticed that the ways the middle class parents socialize their children around stories really set them up for success in school. And the same was not the case for either of the groups of the working class parents, but particularly the Black parents because there was such a strong oral tradition in the Black community and it was considered rude to assume that the people listening to the story needed to be told every little bit of background detail.
But the White parents teach children that they have to tell the listener everything they need to know to understand the story. And I’ve actually caught myself doing this because we had a babysitter come in and my daughter had told her something that she had done and the babysitter couldn’t possibly have known the context and couldn’t make any sense of the description. And so I prompted my daughter to backup and give the needed information and I realized immediately what I was doing. I was socializing her to give that background information and I wasn’t doing this for the reason that it’s critical to school learning, but it is. It’s critical to things like the scientific method and it’s a fundamental piece of knowledge for successful adults in so many fields. And so I’ve been thinking as I’ve subsequently gone through a masters in education about how to support all children of being successful in school.
And I of course don’t want to say poor parents and particularly poor Black parents. “You’re doing it all wrong. And if you just did it like the middle class White parents, your children would succeed.” But on the flip side of that, you know, White parents do hold the power in this country and not just White parents, White people. And they control the language that people need to use to be successful and this is not changing as fast as some of us might like. So I don’t expect you to say, “and here’s a study I did the answers this question,” but since I have you here and since we have you here, I would love to pick your brain on how we can address this. What you think we should do.
Yeah. And I think your last comment really got to the heart of it. It’s not that anybody is doing anything right or wrong in this circumstance, it’s that the way the power structures are set up, they reward the way that the White parents were raising their children and they disincentivize the way that Black parents are raising their children. So that’s a fact about power, not about child development. You know, you could imagine that it would be the other way around depending on how the power structures were set up. And then the White way of socializing your children in those Heath studies would have been setting them up for failure at school. But as you say, given that the world that we live in is set up with the White people in power and with those forms of interaction and power, you know, should we then encourage storytelling or perspective taking or changing the way that traditions happened in other households to try to set them up for success.
I think that if your goal is that kind of academic success or the kind of being able to integrate into that White environment that seems to unfortunately be demanded for success than there might have to be some degree of changing the way that those parents interact with their children to make sure that they have the skills they need to succeed at school. And I feel like a horrible person for saying that because again, that’s not meant to be a value judgment. That’s just meant to be a reflection on the unfortunate situation that we find ourselves in in terms of who holds the power and who gets to judge what is the way to tell a story and what is the proper way to talk and interact. It would be much better if we could live in a society with more equality where we can say there is value in this form of interaction and there’s a different form of value in this interaction, let’s teach all children both you know, and that I think would be a much better solution and, and I think some more forward-minded schools and school districts are moving in that direction, but it’s a long and very difficult road and in between here and there, there might have to be some pragmatic practices put into place to try to get everybody up to a level of what is currently considered traditional social success in order to start implementing some of that change.
Yeah, sort of like equal opportunity. We wish it wasn’t needed, but it sort of is for the interim to correct past wrongs.
Yeah. And then the hope is that it really is just for the interim and that eventually things will sort themselves out in, but as you say, much less quickly than perhaps it might be hoped.
Yeah. Okay. Well thank you for offering your thoughts on that. I know it’s a difficult topic and I think it’s important just that White parents be aware of this and because I wasn’t until I read this work and I have some Black friends, but I don’t see necessarily the ways in which their parenting is dramatically different from mine, but in some ways it isn’t and in other ways it is and I think it’s important for us to at least know that and understand a little bit about it. So thank you for thinking that through. So on a lighter note, let’s talk about Dr. Seuss because if we have to, he drives me absolutely bananas and I think that their books are – the only redeeming quality of those books is that you can skip three pages and the story makes just as much sense as if you had read every page, which saves me a ton of time, but one study found that rhyming helps children to learn new words and I’m thinking, “argh! do I have to read every darn page?” Can you tell us about that? And also moving beyond just rhyme, other elements of children’s books that particularly support learning of certain concepts.
Yeah. Well, I am pro Dr. Seuss and we can have a whole other, we can hash this out on a different podcast at a different time of the rhyming studies specifically on your side of this debate. Um, was looking at rhymes for real words, not necessarily rhymes for nonsense words, but the idea there is that if you have a rhyming structure and you have that kind of rhythm going, children can learn what to expect. So it’s a matter of them being able to listen ahead and knowing that the next sound is going to, you know, if you talked about a bat and then did that today, that’s it. As a cat, they’re sort of more prepared to hear that word at the end of the next line of the story. And so that helps them to anticipate what’s happening and to process the language more quickly and more readily.
And that is particularly true, I believe in that study. They were somewhat younger kids in the ones we’ve been talking about. I don’t know if you remember off the top of your head how those kids were, but certainly not that it is not useful for older children and I know reading, writing stories to my five year old, he enjoys it for a different reason than when I read rhyming stories to my 18 month old. She’s just sort of gets into the rhythm and and he can actually start to think about what might that word be. And so that’s one of the main benefits of rhyme in terms of learning words and processing language. So Dr. Seuss is fun in that sense, but it’s not necessarily about learning words because again, this is a weird thing, right? You’re not supposed to think that the words that Dr Seuss is using both actually reflect real people real places and real concepts and real animals or, or anything like that except for the rare occasion in which they do.
So. Yeah. I mean I, I happen to like the rhymes and Dr. Seuss just because they’re fun to read and to kind of get into that world and kids sort of get into the silliness of it, which is a benefit of books that we haven’t talked about. You can explore all of these cool things that don’t actually get to happen in real life, but the reading benefits study that you’re talking about specifically was about books that were rhyming real words and real target words that you want your child to pay attention to and it kind of gives them a little extra boost to be part of a rhymed phrase. And are there elements like that that we should be looking out for in books? Well, I’ll give the caveat first and then I can wildly speculate, which is that I’m sure that there are. I am not the best situated person to be talking about that also because there’s not a lot of research on these kinds of individual elements of books and you know, taking them out of all the other things that are going on.
So the research base isn’t there for me to make a strong recommendation, but my recommendation just, you know, in as a researcher in this area and also as a parent what you think of as high quality literature or a book that you are excited to readers that has some of the features that you really like. That’s the book that you should read to your child. They’re much savvier than we give them credit for and yes, sometimes, and I’m sure this has happened to you and many of your readers, that one book that your kid gets stuck on and wants to do it every night, like you just want to throw it out the window because it’s just inane or the pictures are horrible or whatever it is they do sometimes get stuck on – for whatever reason – on some book that you just wish they would stop wanting to read, but also, you know, if you stock their shelves with things that seem to you to be thought provoking or of high quality, whether that’s the language or the illustrations and the messages are – or whatever, you know, that should be just fine.
And that repetition serves a function, right?
They learn something new by hearing the same story again and again, they actually get more out of it. Is that right?
Absolutely. But again, just like adults do, so, you know, some of us will go back and read the same books over again. A lot of adults. Will do that if you’ve got a favorite book and read it again or if you need some comfort food, you’ll go back to something that you’ve read already, you know, and that makes perfect sense and it’s also for children on the first hearing, they’re not going to get everything as we’ve been discussing. They’re not going to get very much at all and a lot of cases and so I like to compare it to if you’re an adult and you’re watching like a very confusing like spy thriller movie, you know, like Mission Impossible style where there’s lots of character and there’s lots of subplots and intrigues and stuff like you might have to go back and watch that movie again. Now that you know what’s happened and then you can go back and really start to piece it together. So then kids aren’t all that different from us in kind.
Nothing like a high quality Tom Cruise movie.
Exactly. You might need that to unwind after the kids are in bed anyway, but the point is you might have to watch it more than once in order to really feel like you’ve gotten what’s going on and kids are no different.
Okay. So I want to tie together the idea of reading with another one of your interests because I know that you’re also interested in children’s abilities to reason scientifically and so we randomly got out of the library and let’s read and find out science book. It was, I think it was From Caterpillar to Butterfly and it just has these basic scientific concept in and and there are two sets of books. One of the preschool, one at the elementary level and she absolutely loves them and I found them on sale on Ebay and got a whole bunch of them and we’ve just been reading them over and over. And so I’m curious, is reading these books and effective way of learning about science and do you think that she understands that… When I’ve been saying that these are called science books, so she says, I want to read a science book. Does he understand that what’s in a science book is pretty real compared to what’s in a Berenstain Bears? Bears goes to the dentist book.
Yeah, of course. That’s just plain adorable that she’s asking for science books.
I’m impressed with my parenting on that front, yes.
Yeah, and I think the answer to that is yes. First of all, because you’re telling her that it’s different. You know, this is a science book as opposed to this is a story book or something like that. So she’s getting that message explicitly. She’s probably also getting that message implicitly. Those books are written very differently. I imagine they’re not necessarily narrative in structure. So you know, if I’m thinking of the kinds of caterpillar to butterfly is books that I’ve seen for kids, so you know, this is a caterpillar, here’s what it looks like, here’s where it lives, here’s what it eats and oh look, here’s what the caterpillar is doing. Right? Yeah. Which is different than reading your child, you know, Eric Carle, very hungry caterpillar or something like that. So the, the language in the books are different.
The way that the books are written and structured and illustrated often they have photographs, for example, instead of line drawings necessarily, so there’s a lot of different signals that those books are a different kind of thing than storybooks and so I do think that children treat them differently, particularly again, if the adults around them treat them differently. Oh, we saw a butterfly today and look that’s the same as the butterflies that you see in your books for example, and it’s a really good way again, to start those conversations, you know, your child might not have certain kinds of animals around to look at or volcanoes or whatever it is that they’re interested in. Dinosaurs certainly might be a little bit difficult to access outside of their remains in museums, so books are one of the best ways to get them exposed to some of those ideas and to let them know that these are things that were real and this was a long time ago or you can go somewhere in the world right now and see these things even though they’re not here and so on.
Okay. All right. We’ll keep doing that then. And as we wrap up, I’m actually just thinking about learning to love reading for the sake of loving reading fits into all of this because we’ve talked so much about messages and things we want children to take out of books. And as I was thinking over the weekend, I was just thinking that’s not the only reason we want children to read books. So where does the whole love of reading fit into that?
Well, I mean obviously I’m very much in favor of the love of reading and you’re right, I do tend to get sort of stuck on books as educational tools because that’s the way in which I study them, but you know, they can also be, you know, tools of inculturation are tools of exploration and are just, you know, tools of relaxation, which is what most of us as adults do when we’re reading novels, I imagine certainly. But instilling a healthy love of reading is like instilling any other healthy habits. You can’t do it with too heavy a hand or the kids are going to catch on. Don’t convince them that no, the broccoli is the most delicious thing in the world. Like they know it’s not, you know, so you’ve got to try to work with them on their level and make it a part of their habits.
I imagine that as you already mentioned, and I’m sure many of your readers make a habit out of reading, you know, it’s a thing that we do every day or if it’s a rainy day, we’ll go to the library or you know, let’s see what’s on your shelf today kind of idea. And it’s just sort of fits into the whole context of here’s a thing that we do in our lives because it’s important. You know, we eat healthy food and I make sure that you get to sleep on time and we wear clothes that are appropriate for the weather at least insofar as it’s possible with a wiggling 18 months old. And you know, he read books. This is something that we do in this family and I do it and you do it and you know, lots of friends that we know do it. And so it becomes just a part of the atmosphere that they’re involved in the air that they breathe, like the rest of the healthy habits that we’re trying to instill in our children. And you can’t force it.
Yep. Can’t force anything really.
They will know exactly like, you know, you’re trying to raise a child if they don’t want to do it, my goodness, they are just not going to. So you lead the horses to water and you make it an environment where they’re a little bit thirsty and they’ve got to take it from there.
What a lovely analogy to end on. Thank you so much for taking the time to help us think through all of these issues. I know I’ve learned a lot to put in practice about how to read with my daughter and maybe not just closing the book at the end and moving right on, but having more of a conversation about what we’ve read and maybe that doesn’t have to happen right after the story. Maybe it can also happen in the car on the way home from daycare or something. But those conversations I think really are critical. So thank you so much for helping us think through all this.
Absolutely. It’s been a pleasure to talk to you Jen. Thanks.
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