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The wildly popular Harry Potter books don’t necessarily need another reason for kids to read them, but you can chalk up another potential positive for the series — teaching children to be more tolerant of others.
A recent study published recently in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that kids who read Harry Potter books and identified strongly with the main character were more tolerant of stigmatized minority groups, specifically immigrants, refugees, and gay people.
Bigotry is a continuing theme in the books, the researchers write, noting the evil Voldemort, with his beliefs that only pure-blood wizards and witches should have power, is a “rather obvious” nod to Nazism. Harry, of course, is a “half-blood,” born to one magical parent and one non-magical (“muggle”) parent. The books are also filled with numerous characters — mudbloods, goblins, house elves — that have been marginalized or forced into roles of servitude. Throughout the seven-book series by author J.K. Rowling, Harry befriends these characters and tries to understand and appreciate how they’re different from him.
In one part of the study, researchers asked Italian high school students how many Harry Potter books they read and which character — Harry or his nemesis Voldermort — they more closely identified with. The students then filled out a questionnaire to assess their views about gay people. Those who read a greater number of books in the series were more likely to have positive feelings toward gay individuals.
In a separate part of the study, 34 Italian fifth graders filled out a questionnaire to gauge their views on immigrants. Then for six weeks, half of the children read and discussed excerpts from the books that focused on themes of tolerance or prejudice. The other half read and discussed unrelated topics from the series. The kids were then tested again and the results noted a significant reduction in prejudice and more empathy for immigrants in the group that discussed tolerance issues (but only if they identified strongly with Harry).
The key component of the study that involved the young students was the fact that there was adult-led discussions, psychologist Rebecca Bigler, PhD, told Yahoo Health. “In general it is hard to change children’s attitudes using literature,” she said. “But research shows when someone discusses the literature with the child and can monitor the child’s understanding of the themes, you can get different outcomes.”
If kids are simply reading a book with no follow-up discussion, “topics or themes that are too complex or counters children’s attitude tend to get distorted, changed, or forgotten entirely because they are not mentally ready to handle it,” said Bigler, who teaches at the University Texas-Austin and studies the formation of social stereotypes in children. “If you read a boy a book about a female firefighter and he thinks only men can be firefighters, he will use male pronouns, such as “he” or “him,” when recalling details of the story.”
The study illustrates why it’s important for parents to engage with their children when they watch television or movies or read books, said Bigler. “When someone is very clear and explicit with children and can help them draw a parallel from what they are reading to something in the real world, such as immigration, then the children can construct their own new belief and it’s more likely to be authentic to them,” she added. “If parents can gauge how their child understood what they are reading and help fill in the blanks of what they might have missed, then it’s absolutely possible for attitudes to improve.”