Can Reading Teach Young People Empathy and Tolerance?

shutterstock_257124592A group of academics from universities in the UK and Italy discovered that reading a popular children’s fiction series encouraged tolerance in children, teenagers, and even young adults.

A recent study, published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology , uncovered how J.K Rowling’s popular Harry Potter series vastly improved levels of tolerance and empathy in children, teenagers, and young adults.

Notably, improved levels of tolerance were observed only in participants who identified with the central character Harry, who possesses positive characteristics like bravery, courage and open-mindedness.

According to the study, to improve children’s ability to identify with others, reading highly engaging fiction should be encouraged as a strategy to help develop ‘perspective taking.’

Reading helps expose children to scenarios, experiences, and beliefs outside their own experiences. It has been suggested that reading could also reduce violent tendencies by building the ‘networks in our brains responsible for planning and impulse control.’ Reading helps children to think through situations.

Learning perspective taking is crucial as children are not innately born with social values and are, in fact, profoundly egocentric and highly sensitive to negative social norms like homophobia and racism.

Empathy and inclusive behaviors need to be taught and practiced with children in order to create kinder, more compassionate children, who feel confident to challenge negative cultural views.

The deep reading experience, because it is an intensely imaginative activity, allows children to flex the parts of the brain where cognitive skills like sensitivity, empathy and self-awareness are developed.

Impact of Identification

“Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open.”
The study found that when participants who identified with Harry read about his attitudes towards fictitious stigmatized groups, such as house elves and ‘mud-bloods,’ his inclusive attitudes were then projected by the participants onto real-life stigmatized social groups.

The study also found that when children do not identify with characters like Voldemort and the bully Draco Malfoy, they alter their attitudes to oppose the ones held by the negative characters.

Tyrannical villains like Voldemort who draw subtle parallels with real-life figures offer an effective way of teaching children to celebrate and value difference. Further, it demonstrates in a child-friendly manner the harm that views against blood purity in the wizarding world and racial discrimination in the real-world can cause.

The Study

“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

The preliminary study used a group of 32 Italian primary school children who were divided into small groups. Some groups were provided passages that heavily discussed themes of tolerance and their consequences, whereas the others were given descriptive passages whose subject matter was much lighter.

A researcher over a period of six weeks conducted sessions with the children, reading and discussing their thoughts on the passages. This experimental intervention, as well as the later controlled experiments, supported the researcher’s initial hypothesis that the themes of tolerance and justice in the books would help improve participant attitudes.

As a control measure, researchers collected the children’s opinions on stigmatized social groups such as homosexuals, immigrants and refugees before and after they had read the passages to gauge changes in their levels of tolerance towards others.

Reading the Harry Potter books is also an excellent way to approach sensitive subjects with children. Despite much of the darkness that exists in the books, like the huge and devastating wars and the death of Harry’s parents, there is a great deal of lightness and courage in them too.

The books teach children to “battle on” as Dumbledore says, and to always fight for justice.

Symbolic Interactions

“It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.”

What’s more, Harry Potter, Neville Longbottom, Hermione Granger and Co. are courageous and compassionate young adults; the representation of these fictional children creates vivid role models for children.

According to social cognitive theory put forward by Albert Bandura, a professor at Stanford University, these attitudes could very much make their way off the page and into a child’s life.

When a reader is exposed to vicarious experiences through fiction, they learn themselves the actual intellectual and emotional responses displayed by characters. This process he terms a  “symbolic interaction.”

That is, when children read how Harry acts in certain situations they are engaged in an act of mentally performing Harry’s emotions and values; by identifying with the narrator they are engaged in an act of imagination which allows them to empathize with not just Harry, but the characters he interacts with too.

Since Harry is such a positive role model, this act of imagination could help children to feel more comfortable speaking out against discrimination. The books offer an opportunity for children to mentally project themselves into a role where they are better able to understand stigmatized social groups and to speak up against injustices.

Reading for Self-Esteem

“I am what I am an’ I’m not ashamed. ‘Never be ashamed,’ my ol’ dad used ter say, ‘there’s some who’ll hold it against you, but they’re not worth bothern’ with.”

The Reading Agency have also suggested that reading for pleasure in general could help improve self-esteem. Reading could potentially be a way to help children feel more confident in tackling bullying and intolerance at school, and even among their own friends.

What the Harry Potter series, and books in general, have to offer for children is not just enjoyment but a sustained dialogue on justice, friendship and respect.

Highly imaginative acts of reading play a vital function in allowing children to rehearse social choices and negotiate their personal value systems.

It is crucial for the development of emotionally sensitive and considerate children to be able to access the kind of fiction that provides opportunities for them to imagine who they could be and who they want to be.

Reading On

“If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.”

Whilst the study used only the Harry Potter texts, other children’s authors like Roald Dahl, Jacqueline Wilson, and C. S. Lewis have much to offer young minds. These authors create expansive texts and characters that help children to think through and organize their own moral compasses.

Indeed, a lot of what Roald Dahl expressed in his books still resonates with me today. They are values that I have kept close to myself; they managed to impress upon me something poignant and profound in their value. They offered me perspectives that helped make me a better person.

Roald Dahl teaches children:

“A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.”

Other young adult authors like Jacqueline Wilson embrace issues like mental health and domestic abuse with an impressive sensitivity. “The Illustrated Mum” is even recommended by the Royal College of Psychiatrists. So are a number of her other books including “Bad Girls,” which is recommended for children who are being bullied.

Jacqueline Wilson claims that she always tries to have “happy endings because I would hate any child to be cast down in gloom and despair; I want to show them you can find a way out of it.”

Books can be an amazing way to provide comfort to children. Even if the content of the book is serious, difficult or tragic. Indeed, Roald Dahl’s “Matilda” is all about how books can be deeply comforting to children in difficult situations.

In the absence of loving parents, Dahl describes Matilda as being “nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world like ships on the sea. These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone.”

“So please, oh please, we beg, we pray
Go throw your TV set away
And in its place you can install
A lovely bookshelf on the wall…”

Reading Resources

If you would like more information on books for tough times, the following are a few sites that provide really helpful guides of are age appropriate books for children and young adults.

The Partnership for Children
The Partnership for Children has created “Good Books for Tough Times.” This is a reading list for children who are experiencing hard times or could simply do with seeing the world through someone else’s eyes.

They even have two age specific sections that covers fiction on the theme of bullying!

The Royal College of Psychiatrists

The RCPSYCH has a comprehensive list of reading materials for teenagers, younger children, and even adults. These are categorised by theme to make it easier to find the content you want.

The Book Trust

The Book Trust helps you find the perfect book through their ‘Bookfinder’ tool. The Bookfinder helps you find books through filters like age and theme.

Perspectives for a Diverse America

This scheme is run by Tolerance, an organization that seeks to promote tolerance and inclusiveness in America through literature. You can access their carefully compiled anthology of texts online.

Hannah Spruce is an editorial assistant at the empathy and arts publication “VoiceIn Journal” and has a Master’s in Contemporary Literatures. She is a published poet and a strong advocate of books, literacy, and their ability to empower. She currently works as an in-house writer for High Speed Training, that provides a variety of online safeguarding training courses.

Kids reading photo available from Shutterstock

Can Reading Teach Young People Empathy and Tolerance?


APA Reference
Spruce, H. (2019). Can Reading Teach Young People Empathy and Tolerance?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 17, 2019, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 21 Sep 2019
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Sep 2019
Published on All rights reserved.