“Storytelling? I’m already reading books to my child – isn’t that enough?”
Your child DOES get a lot out of reading books (which is why we’ve done a several episodes on that already, including What children learn from reading books, How to read with your child, and Did you already miss the boat on teaching your toddler how to read?.
But it turns out that storytelling benefits our relationship with our child in ways that reading books really can’t, because you’re looking at the book rather than at your child. If you ask your child what kind of story they’d like you to tell, you also get incredible insight into both their interests and concerns – I can attest to this, as I’ve been singing story-songs about poop and various kinds of baby animals who can’t find their mamas on and off for several weeks now (we had an incident a few months back where she couldn’t find me in a store).
In this episode we also discuss the ways that people from different cultures tell stories, and what implications this has for them as they interact with our education system.
Other episodes mentioned in this show:
Bengtsson, N. (2009). Sex and violence in fairy tales for children. Bookbird: A journal of international children’s literature 47(3), 15-21.
Byers,L.A.(1997).Telling the stories of our lives: Relational maintenance as illustrated through family communication. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Ohio University.
Bylund, C.L. (2003). Ethnic diversity and family stories. Journal of Family Communication 3(4), 215-236.
Clark, A.N. (1969). Journey to the People. New York, NY: Viking.
Dyson, A.H., & Genishi, C. (Eds) (1994). The need for story: Cultural diversity in classroom and community. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
Egan, K. (1987). Literacy and the oral foundations of education. Harvard Educational review 57, 445-472.
Egan, K. (1997). The educated mind: How cognitive tools shape our understanding. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Fiese, B.H., Hooker, K.A., Kotary, L., Schwagler, J., & Rimmer, M. (1995). Family stories in the early stages of parenthood. Journal of Marriage and Family 57(3), 763-770.
Gee, J.P. (1985). The narrativization of experience in the oral style. Journal of Education 167(1), 9-35. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/42742075
Gordon, T.-J. (1991). Teachers telling stories: Seven-, eight-, and nine-year-old children’s written responses to oral narratives. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ.
Greene, E., & Del Negro, J.M. (2010). Storytelling: Art and technique (4th Ed.). Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited.
Haven, K. (2007). Story proof: the science behind the startling power of story. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited.
Isaacs, D. (2013). Sex and violence in fairy tales. Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health 49(12), 987-988.
Jasper, M. (2017, February 19). Only 22% of children’s book characters were people of color in 2016. The Mary Sue. Retrieved from https://www.themarysue.com/poc-childrens-book-characters-2016/
Killick, S., & Frude, N. (2009). The teller, the tale, and the told. Psychologist 22(1), 850-853.
Koenig, J. (2002). Family ties: Identity, process, and relational qualities in joint family
storytelling. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Washington, Seattle.
Larsen, N.E., Lee, K., & Ganea, P.A. (2017). Do storybooks with anthropomorphized characters promote prosocial behaviors in young children? Developmental Science (Online article). Full article available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/desc.12590?shared_access_token=pe47nFMA_K4-5DuHH3I2d4ta6bR2k8jH0KrdpFOxC6748z_qEzyWjpKevlijCSNZqgMtKQWoecQi1JomdGjs2zXZ4BBmtV3ULQacZfVUsyCUHU74tThtq9R3osjgNiWG-ek7hYaAJINhD0wfJowkFQ%3D%3D
McManus, S. (1994). Hibernian Nights. New York, NY: Barnes & Noble.
Noddings, N. (2002). Educating moral people: A caring alternative to character education. New York, NY: Teacher’s College Press.
Ramirez-Esparza, N., & Pennebaker, J. W. (2006). Do good stories produce good health?
Exploring words, language, and culture. Narrative Inquiry, 16, 211-219. Full article available at: http://poetryforpersonalpower.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/good-stories-produce-good-health.pdf
Stone,E.(1988). Black sheep and kissing cousins: How our stories shape us. New York: Times Books.
Sturm, B.W. (2000). The storytelling trance experience. The Journal of American Folklore 113(449), 287-304.
The Conversation Africa (n.d.). Cultural appropriation: When “borrowing” becomes exploitation. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/the-conversation-africa/cultural-appropriation-wh_b_10585184.html
Trees, A.R., & Kellas, J.K. (2009). Telling tales: Enacting family relationships in joint storytelling about difficult family experiences. Papers in Communication Studies (1-2009), University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Full article available at https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/commstudiespapers/121/
Wilson, K. (2016, September 14). How diverse is children’s literature? This infographic tells the disturbing truth. Bustle. Retrieved from https://www.bustle.com/articles/183948-how-diverse-is-childrens-literature-this-infographic-tells-the-disturbing-truth
Before we get going with today’s topic, I wanted to let you know about a little something I’ve been working on for a while now. I think I’ve mentioned before that I was working on a Master’s in Education – well, I’ve finished that now and I’m actually not in school at the moment which is both amazingly freeing and rather strange. I’ve mentioned before that after we made the decision to homeschool our daughter, whenever anyone asked me about homeschooling they would always ask me the same questions, so I created a course to help families figure out whether homeschooling could be right for them – you can find more info on that at yourhomeschoolingmojo.com if you like. But a lot of friends said “homeschooling sounds awesome, but I could never do it,” or “homeschooling sounds awesome but I don’t want to do it,” or just “we’re committed to public schools.” When I asked them to tell me more about this they invariably expressed some kind of anxiety about this decision – kind of a “we’re committed to public schools but….” – they’re worried about class sizes and a lack of funding and the quality of the education their child will receive.
And I thought to myself: “hmmm…what if there was a way to take everything I’ve learned during a master’s in psychology and another in Education and make it relevant to people who are committed to public school for whatever reason, but who recognize the limitations in the system and want their children to come out of public school among the 40% of 12th-graders who can read and do math at or above a proficient level, and not among the 60% who are at a basic or below-basic level. Parents want to imbue their children with a love of learning, but research has shown that the toddlers who couldn’t stop asking questions basically stop being curious by about third grade. Instead of asking why things happen or how things work, they learn that their job is to answer the teacher’s questions, rather than to ask their own. And when I interviewed parents, I also found they didn’t know where to start in supporting their child’s learning – they’ve been reading to their child since birth, and they taught their child how to count, but they just have no idea what to do next.
So I took what I learned during those degrees, and I did a whole lot of research outside of them, and I talked with Principals and teachers and parents and I asked them what challenge they had had. What challenges they had in teaching, and in parenting children in school, and in teachers and parents working together, and in catching small problems before they become really big problems, which I found actually doesn’t happen all that often – it was way more common than I’d thought for something to go unnoticed for quite a while and even once it was noticed, to take quite a while to fix. It really wasn’t uncommon for a student to lose the better part of a year of learning waiting for testing for learning disabilities, or while being bullied, or simply because they had a personality mismatch with their teacher. I took all of the research on those topics, and a number of others besides, and I made a course for you lovely people that will give you the tools and support you need to prepare yourself and your child for the transition to and first year or two of school. It helps you to understand the different ways parents can participate in their child’s education in school and which are associated with better learning outcomes. It digs into the neuroscience of learning, and especially of learning reading and math, so when your child stares at you blankly after you try to show them a new concept you understand what connection is missing in their brain. It looks at homework and whether children should be getting any of it, and gives you the data you need to work with administrators to establish homework policies that are actually grounded in research. It shows you the critical components of a life-long love of learning, and shows you how to support the development of these through activities connected to school as well as those outside of school. And best of all, it does all this in a way that doesn’t make you think “Holy cow, here are another 300 things I need to teach my kid; I can’t keep tabs on it all or do it all and it’s stressing me out just thinking about it,” but rather “If your child is having problems with X, here are some things you can try.” It helps you to see what things you might be able to change in schools if you want to put the energy into it, and which ones are probably here for the long haul. And we have an awesome group on Facebook that thinks through these issues together in a supportive way.
So what’s it like to be in this course? Well, I’ll quote a couple of the people who have been through it: Kesha from Oklahoma, who is actually a Your Parenting Mojo listener, sent me an email after she finished the section on the neuroscience of learning and said “I LOVED this section on the neuroscience of learning, it made so much sense, provided so many pointers, and gives tools I can definitely use to find better ways to make new things we learn relevant to my son. I had a really hard time doing that before but I think using his interests, then finding ways to tie different subjects to them and letting him lead me through how he’d like to demonstrate his learning are concrete, easy to apply tactics. This course is amazing!”
And Kathryn in the U.K. said: “I had been worried about the transition to school but this course was both tremendously reassuring and inspiring. It both makes very clear the limitations of the school setting but empowered me to see what I can individually do to make the most of the experience. It also, refreshingly, makes clear that perfection is not the goal. Instead it provided me with the knowledge and ideas to find and make the most of opportunities to extend my daughter’s learning according to her own unique needs and interests.”
I’m looking for a few more people to test the course for me before I launch it out into the wider world and I wanted to give my listeners a first shot at doing that, and also to give you a special discount on it as well. The first twenty people who go to yourschoolingmojo.com and use discount code BETA-60-OFF will get $60 off the $199 price, so the price is just $139. Once again, that’s yourschoolingmojo.com and the discount code is BETA-60-OFF. If you subscribe to the show via my website then you actually got the link and the discount code in your newsletter last week, so you can find it there, and if you’re hearing this for the first time on this episode then just click over to the page on my website for this episode at yourparentingmojo.com/storytelling and all the information is right there for you. I’m looking forward to getting to know a lot more of you in the course!
On to our topic of the day: we’re working on a couple of different series of episodes at the moment – I like to mix them up a bit in case you’re not interested in a particular topic so at least you only get bored every other week rather than every week…
We’re currently in the middle of two series of episodes – one on the importance of play, and the other on storytelling. This topic hadn’t even been on my radar until I did a paper on discourses in education for my master’s in Education. Today we’re going to cover why we should tell stories, and in an upcoming episode we’ll talk about how learn and tell stories which we differentiate from reading stories because we do learn them and tell them rather than reading them. If you’re anything like me, you might think that you’re not sure you really need this episode. It wasn’t until I started researching it that I learned about the powerful impact that storytelling can have on our children’s lives, and even on their academic outcomes, and why I wanted to share this with you.
I also want to give you a heads-up episode has some content that you might not want children to hear. No swearing; just some concepts that are more suitable for adult ears only.
Let’s start with the story of stories – how did stories orginate? Researchers think that at one time everyone was a storyteller, but as human society became more complex, people started to specialize in one form or another of the arts – like drama, dance, or music. People who had a good sense of timing, a good command of language, and a memory to hold it all together became a community’s storytellers. One theory holds that the stories became so exaggerated that they had to be told in the third person for the teller to retain some sense of modesty, which gave rise to the hero tale. Storytellers weren’t just entertainers – they were geneologists, historians, and keepers of culture.
The first written record of an activity that appears to be storytelling comes from what is known as the Westcar Papyrus, recorded between 2,000 and 1,200 BC, in which three sons entertain their father, who had built the pyramids, with strange stories. Stories wended their way through history – the first known heroic epic, (Gilgamesh), Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, through the travelling master storytellers of Ireland and Wales who knew would each have known 350 stories during the period of the Roman Empire, to the height of storytelling in Western Europe when professional organizations of storytellers would hold storytelling competitions in the Middle Ages. After the printing press was invented in 1450, storytelling in Western cultures started on a down-slide from which it really hasn’t recovered. The written word is now the primary way Western people communicate with each other, and oral traditions (as well as the people whose cultures rely on them) are really looked down upon.
The one use we seem to still have for stories is telling them to children – librarians told stories to children to integrate immigrants into the U.S. in the early twentieth century, and to inculcate the new residents with their new country’s values, and a history of storytelling in this period is basically a series of life histories of notable children’s librarians. What was once a way that culture was transmitted to all people had become a way to, in the words of Russian author Kornei Chukovsky: “foster in the child, at whatever cost, compassion and humaneness – this miraculous ability of man to be disturbed by another being’s misfortunes, to feel joy about another being’s happiness, to experience another’s fate as one’s own.” Sharing a story is a very different experience than reading it by oneself, and in general all people, even adults, enjoy these experiences – which is why we go to the theater and attend concerts, but Westerners have mostly gotten out of the habit of getting together to share stories. Sharing a story may make the story more enjoyable and also enhance the relationship because the story is an object of shared attention.
And what kinds of stories do we share? Parents sometimes wonder at the unsavory ideas expressed in folk tales – including one-dimensional good and evil characters and stereotypical depictions of women and people of color, as well as violence. Psychologists believe, though that the confines of the story – the “once upon a time” at the beginning and the “The end” at the end help children to know that what is happening in the story is not real, and that children can safely experience ideas and emotions through stories that they couldn’t do in real life. Folk tales actually weren’t originally intended for children; even the Brothers Grimm’s original edition of fairy tales published in 1812 was intended for adults. Almost immediately people started to read them to children, so the Grimms edited the stories for children by censoring out some of the violence and sexuality. For example, in the 1812 version of the story The Frog Prince, the frog just wants to get into bed with the princess – the story is openly sexual. Psychoanalysts subsequently imposed their own ideas about why children find these stories appealing: because they give children permission to express “complex, unconscious, infantile fantasies about sexual wishes, anger, guilt and fear of punishment within the family. It is unacceptable to consciousness for these to be explicit so they are expressed symbolically.” The frog in the story represents the princess’s revulsion toward the male member, which she must overcome before she gets married.
Some authors note that the Grimms thought that sex was unsuitable in stories for children but violence was perfectly acceptable, although some changes have to be made – it wouldn’t be appropriate for a mother to starve her children to death in the forest so the mother became an evil stepmother in Hansel and Gretel.
Now I have to admit that I got to this point in researching this episode and I thought to myself “what the heck are we teaching our children in these fairy tales?” That’s when I reached out to Dr. Deena Weisberg of the University of Pennsylvania; you heard my interview with her a few weeks ago. I was surprised to learn that, in general, she’s not a huge fan of censoring the stories we read to our children, although I do think there are a few approaches you could take with this. One would be to read the stories anyway – some researchers believe that hearing a scary story from a trusted adult leads to intense feelings of anxiety and excitement, with a happy ending enabling relief and a return to safety. This can allow traumatic experiences to be portrayed and intense emotions to be experienced safely. I would think, though, that the suitability of this approach very much depends on the child – my own almost four-year-old cries when one friend might not see another friend again in a story, so I don’t think we’ll read original fairy tales anytime soon – but some children *enjoy* being scared and might get a lot out of this experience even at a young age.
Another approach would be to share the Disney-type versions of the stories which are fairly effectively sanitized for the worst of the sex and violence, as long as you don’t think too deeply about how the parts of the story that are edited out – things like how Sleeping Beauty gets pregnant (she was raped by a married man) or that Quasimodo’s master has Esmeralda hanged in the Hunchback of Notre Dame, or that the sea witch cuts out the Little Mermaid’s tongue in the original version of the story. You could read original versions of stories but change the worst-offending ideas on the fly as you go, although to my introverted, slow-thinking brain this would be more stressful than anything.
The other thing you can do is just pick different stories. There are *so many* stories out there that you can choose one with messaging that you support and that your child will enjoy. There’s plenty of time down the line for your child to get to the gory stuff, when they decide they’re ready for it. This actually fits with the way that stories were used in previous generations, which is as one more tool in our toolbelt of ways we can support our personal development, and this means we can select a story for a particular purpose in a particular context. These stories can take a couple of different forms – firstly, we might choose to learn a particular story in which we find a lot of meaning that is important to us. The other thing we can do is to tell what is called family stories, which are the stories of our own families, and I should acknowledge here that I’m indebted once again to Dr. Laura Froyen for introducing me to this term because I hadn’t previously heard of it. We’ll talk about family storytelling in our next episode in this series.
So what are the benefits of storytelling, given that it currently is not prioritized in our culture? Storytelling isn’t as common among Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic (or WEIRD) families as it is in families from some other cultures, and I believe that this is because people in WEIRD cultures have chosen to prioritize the ability to read above the ability to share stories. Because schools happen to also prioritize the ability to read, likely because the systems in schools were set up by and primarily for the benefit of the dominant culture in WEIRD societies, which are white children, white families’ preparation of their children thus dovetails nicely with the skills their children will need once they get to school.
Families from other cultures value different kinds of information sharing, and I want to tell you about an incredibly powerful lesson I learned during my Master’s of Education. I had the opportunity to choose one of five theorists who work on the topic of discourses, and in this context a discourse is the vocabulary and symbols that are used when thinking about and understanding a specific topic. It’s like a “kit” of ideas that surround a concept and the way we think about it, and we can show ourselves as members of a group or as people who are outside a group using the way we describe that group.
I actually had the option to pick a theorist who is working in the area where I come from in England, which would have been personally interesting to me, but I chose instead to focus on a theorist named James Paul Gee, who gives the Barbie Doll discourse as an example of what a discourse is, which you can recognize even if Barbie doesn’t have a logo on her: her body is a certain shape, she has certain kinds of clothes and accessories, she talks and acts a certain way in books, games, and TV shows. In our own lives we perpetuate an ever-evolving list of discourses – things like student, teacher, member of the dominant culture, member of a non-dominant culture, high school graduate, or high school drop-out.
Gee believes that thinking of “literacy” in terms of just the ability to read and write is very limiting. In one of his papers, he recounts a story told by a 7-year-old girl he calls “L” in her show and tell class; it is a bit long, but this was such an insightful exercise for me that I’m actually going to read it to you in full.
Now I don’t think it’s a huge secret that I’m white – you can verify this for yourself on my website if you need to – and you can probably guess from the speaking style in this story that it was told by a Black child. And you might not be surprised to learn that L’s white teacher had a reaction which was much like my own when I first read the story, which is to say that I really had no idea what was going on. Why did it jump around so much? What does she mean when she says she got “stuck on the hook” at the beginning of the story? What the heck was wrong with the dog? It seemed like it was euthanized when she said it was “put to sleep,” but then it seems like he’s still alive, but does he come home with her in the end or not?
Gee says that “L’s story was not at all well received by her teacher. She was interrupted at the end by questions that showed the teacher did not understand her story. She was finally told to sit down, the teacher having found her story incoherent. Her story was felt to be inconsistent, disconnected, and rambling. Eventually L was sent, on the basis of stories like this one, to the school psychologist. We are thus faced with two questions. First, how could a 7-year-old have produced such a remarkable narrative? And second, how could she in producing it have nonetheless failed?” Gee goes on to spend a full SIXTEEN PAGES conducting an in-depth literary assessment of the type that I used to do when I was doing my undergrad degree in English literature, dissecting every word, phrase, and device. He says “Through narrative, L is making sense of her world: why she doesn’t have her puppy, why he didn’t work out, and ultimately why she must belong to the world of home and school, a universal problem for children (and adults). She works out the problems in a quite sophisticated way, in terms of a conflict of natures (the Greeks, an oral society that ultimately gave birth to Western literacy, would have understood this perfectly). She carries it out with a full utilization of prosody, time and sequence markers, an intricate aspect system (actional habiutual, iterative), and parallelism and repetition, and as suspenseful thematic development. The story is in fact, from start to finish, a tour de force.”
The thing that hit me as I read this paper was that the vast majority of work that I read throughout my Master’s in Education related to how children succeed in school talks about how to improve literacy rates, how to get children interested in reading, how to get parents of ‘at risk’ children to talk with their children more to reduce the so-called thirty million word gap which, it turns out, was based on a really small study and conflated variables related to wealth and education so we can’t really say that it’s the poor children who are most at risk. When we think about “Show and Tell,” which for those of you who aren’t familiar with it, it’s when elementary school-aged children bring an item from home to show and speak about to their class, we can now think through what kind of discourse this supports. When a teacher says “If you have something that was special for you, that you would like to share with us, but we don’t want to hear about TV shows and regular things that happened” then the child gets the idea that their teacher doesn’t value the same things they do, and perhaps doesn’t understand them very well. Some of our most celebrated writers – I’m thinking about James Joyce and Virginia Woolf as examples – take an ordinary, apparently boring event and turn it into what we call “literature.” Children learn that a story has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end, because that’s what essays will need to have in a few years. Children learn that they have to introduce new ideas and not just throw them in the middle of the story, because you can’t just throw a new variable into the middle of a scientific paper. Show and Tell isn’t just about Showing and Telling, it’s about transferring cultural values related to literacy and “correct” ways of communicating and how to be successful in the world.
All of this work takes the deficit view: the idea that the way middle class white children learn is “the right way,” and that if only parents of non-dominant cultures would raise their children more like middle class white parents do, that the children of non-dominant cultures would be better off. I realized as I read Dr. Gee’s 16 pages of literary analysis that children of non-dominant cultures have ideas that are just as complex as those of children from the dominant culture, but the dominant culture does not know how to value these ideas and the way they are expressed and, if I was being unkind, I might say that the dominant culture *chooses* not to value these ideas and the way they are expressed.
A countering opinion might say “but the children of non-dominant cultures are going to need to learn how to function within the dominant cultural discourse to function in society – for example, providing all the requisite background information to a story is a key precursor of scientific and academic writing – so they might as well learn it while they’re young. One day we might live in an ideal world where lots of different expressive styles are valued, but in the interim I have to believe that there’s a way to help teachers to understand the ways in which children from different cultures express themselves so the children can learn that many types of expression are valued, and to help them understand how to effectively use different styles of communicating when interacting with different people – and that white children could learn a thing or two about that as well.
I realize that when I’m saying to you, probably a mostly-white, middle class audience, that we should consider telling more stories to our children that I run the risk of encouraging cultural appropriation, which is the way that cultural creations of non-dominant cultures are used by members of the dominant culture. Many stories can be traced to roots in multiple cultures around the world, although I think it’s notable that the ones I’ve just told you are pretty unsavory and that I won’t be sharing with my daughter anytime soon are the ones that originate in Western Europe, which is “my culture.” I hope that we can take the information in this and related episodes and use it not just to tell better stories ourselves, but also to better appreciate the stories that others tell, even if they don’t sound like ours.
So, getting to the crux of the issue, why should we tell stories? One author of a book on storytelling that was published in 1959 offers an opinion that I think is still relevant: “Everywhere, everywhere people need stories to answer the questioning of every human heart “Who am I?” “Where did I come from?” “Why am I here?” “Whither am I going?” Always, always people need stories – to tell them, to hear them. Storytelling for both teller and listener is an affair of the heart as well as of the mind, and beyond both, of the spirit.”
Because human experiences of need, longing, sorrow, and joy are universal, the stories that arise from basic human experiences are universal. This may be why we see variations on stories like Cinderella from countries in the near and far East, as well as all corners of Europe. As we’ve said, stories are used to transmit cultural values – so the ancient tales of China encourage the traditional Chinese values of respect for elders, obedience to parents, precedence of the group over the individual, and conformity to rules, while writers of new stories for children encourage individual initiative and performance. Storytelling is a way of keeping cultural heritage alive so it’s important to share stories of your own culture with people of your own culture, but one author writes that “Children need to know children of other nationalities and races so that, inheriting an adult world, they find a free and joyous interchange of acceptance and respect among all peoples…There is need for awareness that each group of people has its won special traditions and customs. There is need that respectful recognition be given these special traditions and customs. There is need for acceptance of these differences. There is tragic need for loving communication between children and children, children and adults, adults and adults – between group and group.”
There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence – I like to call it “anecdata” – about the value of stories and storytelling, but a man named Kendall Haven did me a huge favor by reviewing 350 papers on storytelling for a book published in 2007. Haven had been a senior research scientist for the Department of Energy and was frustrated because he saw how effective storytelling was at conveying messages, but his employer didn’t want to hear about it and didn’t want him to use it in his work as a scientist. He quit and became a storyteller, author, and consultant, and wrote this book. It’s no longer strange to tell stories in the business world – Chip and Dan Heath’s book Made to Stick is about the power of storytelling, and was named to several “best of the year” lists and was selected as one of the best 100 business books of all time.
What I read in Haven’s book about why we remember stories aligns very closely to neuroscientific research that I reviewed for my course on supporting children’s learning in school. In short, to remember something, it has to have both sense and meaning to us. The reason many children can recall a string of dates and regurgitate them on the test but forget them a week later is because they want to do well on the test, which has meaning for them, and as soon as the meaning disappears the memory disappears with it. For those students who don’t care about tests, it’s much harder to remember even for that first period. Stories enhance our ability to remember things because they give meaning to facts that might otherwise seem unrelated or irrelevant. There’s an anecdote in Made to Stick about how photocopy repair technicians used to sit around the lunch table telling stories to each other about crazy error messages they’d seen and how they had solved them. They could have just told each other “when you see the P453T error, you have to hit the toner bottle really hard and then press number 1 five times in a row,” but instead they would walk each other through all the steps they took to understand the problem and all the things they tried that didn’t work. The stories helped the solutions to stick in the technicians’ heads, and the Heaths’ story helped the entire thing stick in my head, which is otherwise pretty irrelevant to me since I’m not a photocopy technician, even though I haven’t read the book in several years.
Stories hold our attention; which is why we say that we get ‘caught up in the story.’ When a story is told successfully, a faraway look comes into the child’s eyes and they seem to be somewhere else. We know that physiological changes occur in both children and adults as they listen to stories – their blood pressure and body temperature decrease, their breathing slows, and the brain becomes more active in certain areas during something of an altered state of mind. One researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill interviewed 22 listeners right after storytelling performances at eight different storytelling events in the Midwest. While this is undoubtedly a small sample, he observed that the listeners had six characteristics in common: they experienced the story with realism, as if it was real; they lost awareness of their surroundings, they engaged their auditory, visual, kinesthetic and emotional receptive channels, they lost a sense of control over the experience because they had a feeling they were being transported into the story, they had a feeling they were inside the story, and time seemed distorted – for some people it seemed to speed up, and for others it seemed to slow down. You might recall that we discussed the concept of flow back in episode 35, when we talked about the book All Joy and No Fun. Flow is the state we get into when we’re doing something with just the right amount of challenge; the activity itself provides feedback to us and we adjust our performance accordingly and we feel completely lost in what we’re doing. We realized in episode 35 that there isn’t a lot of flow in parenting, which is one reason we may find it kind of boring and frustrating all at the same time. I was interested to see that these descriptions of people’s experiences when listening to a story are essentially describing flow experiences – at least, for the listeners. I imagine it’s possible to get into a flow state as the storyteller, although I guess you’d probably need a bit of practice to get over the initial difficulty of the challenge. Part of the flow experience may come from the rhythmic and repetitive phrases and actions, like the beginning of “Once upon a time,” the repetitive phrases and actions (like Goldilocks trying three different things three times each), and the storyteller’s voice, gestures, and vocal techniques.
A couple of small studies have also shown that children tend to remember things especially well from stories that are told rather than ones that are read. They typical methodology for this approach is for a researcher to tell a classroom of children one story and read them another, and then 24 hours later the children’s teacher asks the students to draw one picture from one of the stories as part of a class ‘thank you’ packet for the researcher. In one experiment, 73% of children chose to draw a picture from the story that was told, rather than the one that was read, while another study compared four sets of children: one set had the story read to them; one read it themselves; one saw it on a video, and one set had the story told. A month later, the children who saw the video recalled the story and its images most accurately, but they had to be prompted extensively to bring these recollections back. The students who were the most enthusiastic and excited about their recollections, who readily recalled the story without prompting, who held the most vivid and expansive images of the story, and who were best able to verbalize their memory of the story were those to whom the researcher had told the story.
I’ll show you how this works in action: I’m going to read you two very short stories that Kendall Haven uses in his book Story Proof. Here’s the first one: (Story Proof p.55). Haven says that we activate our experiential and biological and environmental knowledge – we know the ant walked to the river and the dove flew to the tree. We know that the ant could drown in the river (unlike a fish), that gravity made the leaf fall, and that the leaf will initially float. Our brains use this knowledge and then activate story structural knowledge to create meaning – apparently most people assume the dove plucked the leaf on purpose to save the ant, that the bird catcher planned to catch the dove, and the ant bit the bird catcher to repay the dove. Here’s another story: (Story Proof p.55).
You probably had a hard time even understanding this story because most likely you don’t have a large bank of knowledge about space, beyond the names of the planets and their order in the solar system. When Kendall Haven tells this story at NASA, the scientists immediately understand the information, try to figure out which satellite was being referenced, who Pete must be and what papers he had written. They are pretty disappointed when Haven tells them the paragraph was made up by a developmental psychologist for demonstration purposes.
The point is that we *all* use story to remember things – researchers who have studied reading and listening comprehension *universally* support two ideas – that readers and listeners more readily comprehend and retain key narrative information and concepts when they are presented in story form, and that a story structure improves comprehension for all types of narrative texts, especially abstract ideas like moral values. Because devices like rhythm and rhyme make it easier for storytellers to remember stories, they also make it easier for the child to retain and act on the information. So if you want your child to understand or remember something (and, really, isn’t that what we spend most of our lives as parents trying to do?) tell it in the form of a story. That’s not to say that every story should become about putting your jacket away when you get home from school and brushing your teeth without complaining – rather, a better approach may be to use the one used by both Navajos and Kenyans, which problematize ethical decisions and invite open-ended dialogues in which none of the participants know the conclusions ahead of time. Because they won’t come to stories with an idea about what the moral *should be,* you might find that children attach meaning to the peripheral characters, or even tease out implicit meanings in the story that you might not have noticed. You can help this process along by asking the child what character they would be in the story and why.
I also read a fascinating book called Life Lessons Through Storytelling, which describes an extended set of studies by two professors at Indiana University Bloomington on what children learn about ethics through storytelling. I had read elsewhere that children retain the moral of a story better when the characters are people rather than animals because they don’t always see that talking animals are relevant to them, but the Life Lessons Through Storytelling book says that anthropomorphized stories about animals help Native American children to emphasize their interconnection with animals rather than separating humans as an ‘other’ species that is superior to animals. Stories about animals can also allow people to poke fun at human faults and weaknesses without naming specific individuals – for example, the rhyme Baa Baa Black Sheep is about the wool tax that was imposed in medieval times, when the wool trade was the backbone of the English economy, and which financed the Hundred Years War with France. From the children’s perspective, children may find it easier to identify in some ways with animals because the animals lack a specific identity. Since the majority of characters in children’s books are white – several estimates put the number of children’s books about animals and about people of color published each year as being approximately equal – it can help a broader group of children to access these messages when they are presented through gender-free, ethnicity-free animals than through traditional American heroes like George Washington, who now shares his ethnicity with less than half of American schoolchildren.
As we wrap up, I want to be sure to convey that all this isn’t to say that we should stop reading stories to children – there are times when reading is very helpful, like stories that have complex wordplay, or sentence structure, or more description than action. If the story requires more time to learn than you have to give or the story must be told in a word-perfect way to make sense, then you should read it instead. Westerners have recently (in terms of human history) devalued oral traditions but many scholars believe this separation is a false one. In a fascinating article describing parallels and distinctions between oral and literate traditions, Professor Kieran Egan at Simon Fraser University wrote that he believes it is time to see “orality as an energetic and distinct set of ways of learning and communicating, not simply as an incomplete or imperfect use of the mind awaiting the invention of literacy.” This is an especially powerful insight when you apply it to children who have difficulties learning to read, who are nevertheless capable of learning anything they like if the information is presented in a different format. I always liked Biology best among the scientific subjects, in large part because biological processes are a lot like stories, which made them easier for me – an English major – easier to remember. With hindsight, I can now see that there are stories in physics and chemistry as well, but I didn’t discover this at school and nobody presented the information in this way so I retain very little of what I learned about those things.
(And speaking of retaining information, just have a quick think about how much you remember about the story about the ant and the dove, and how much you remember about the satellites. Now are you more convinced about the power of storytelling?)
When you tell stories, you can communicate more fully with listeners using tools like eye contact. The great Irish storyteller Seumus Macanus wrote “While the read story may possess the value of the story alone, the story told carries, superimposed on it, the golden worth of a good storyteller’s captivating art and enhancing personality – trebling its wealth.” In an upcoming episode we’re going to look at how to learn a story to tell, and how to tell it, and I might even learn one to tell you. Should be fun!
Thanks again for listening; all of the references from today’s episode can be found at yourparentingmojo.com/storytelling
Also published on Medium.