Science proves reading Harry Potter makes children kinder

Photo: Alamy
Photo: Alamy 

As if we needed more reason to love JK Rowling, a couple of recent studies have shown that reading Harry Potter can make children better people. That's right, she's not only given us the story of a generation, she's now raising the world's next generation of thought leaders.

Researchers in Italy found that young people who read Harry Potter books – and identify with the lead character – have reduced bias against stigmatised minority groups.

In two different studies, children took note of "the positive attitudes and behaviours of Harry Potter towards stigmatised fantastic groups", and this fantasy work interaction then influenced the children's real-world attitudes.

The children were able to make the leap from Harry's defence of the "mudbloods" to the unfair treatment of immigrants and gay people from some quarters.

"Harry Potter empathises with characters from stigmatised categories, tries to understand their sufferings and to act towards social equality," psychologist Dr Loris Vezzali, the study's leader, explained to The Huffington Post.

Teacher-librarian and author of Raising Readers Megan Daley says that with her "librarian-researcher hat on", the study raises some valid points, but she'd like to see some more longitudinal research.

"With my librarian-reader hat on I'd say 'I told you so!'", she says.

"Librarians know, without research, that reading leads to greater empathy, kindness and compassion in young people and a more socially just understanding of the wider community. Reading helps young people to walk in the shoes of others and see the world from the perspective of people who may be vastly different from themselves.

"Hermione has Muggle parents, and while Voldemort and The Death Eaters may rage about this, Harry Potter sees Hermione for who she is, brave and kind and intelligent, not someone to be looked down upon for an ancestry different to his own. 

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"Books featuring characters from diverse cultural backgrounds help young readers internalise ideas of tolerance and diversity. Early reading experiences can and should play a role in sharing the joy of a rich variety of people who all inhabit the same global space."

Teaching children tolerance and understanding of others is important, says Daley, and we can't ignore that social issues trickle down to our kids.

"We live in an age where issues such as toxic masculinity, racism, sexism and sexual discrimination are constantly hitting the headlines of major papers and media," she says.

"These issues are being talked about in playgrounds and social situations by very young children. Parents need to act as role models in how to appropriately discuss issues and are key in their children developing empathy, kindness and compassion for all people."

There is so much more children can get from books than though, says Daley, although she says more diversity is essential for young readers.

"Children who read about lives different from their own develop more empathy for other individuals, and children will be inclined to read more if they can see themselves and their own lives reflected in stories," she says.

"Children from other countries, struggling with a new language and different customs, should be able to see faces similar to their own smiling out at them from the pages of a picture book. Young readers with disabilities need to see that their stories are worthy, that they are not alone and that every portrayal of disability is valid no matter the outcome of the story. Older teens struggling with sexual orientation or experiencing racism or bullying long for books representing them in positive ways. The importance of authenticity in representation is key.

"'We Need Diverse Books' is an organisation (and a hashtag) that advocates essential changes in the publishing industry to produce and promote literature that reflects the lives of all young people. #weneeddiversebooks states 'Imagine a world in which all children can see themselves in the pages of a book. These shifts in 'norms' have gained momentum in the last ten years or so and #weneeddiversebooks movement has gained momentum."