Or How to Use Storytelling as a Teaching Tool
Note: To find more resources on how to start telling stories to your children, see my Storytelling Page.
When we were visiting family in Chicago this summer, I had the chance to read Tell Me a Story: Creating Bedtime Tales Your Children Will Dream On by Chase Collins. Ever since I read it, my head has been spinning with fairy tales!
The book appealed to me because I know the power of stories and storytelling. I have always been a lover of stories, books, and the oral tradition. I had the privilege of knowing the award-winning storyteller, J.J. Reneaux, before a battle with cancer ended her life at the age of 45. She further inspired me to listen to and tell stories.
Stories do more than entertain. When I had children, I knew I wanted to use stories to enrich their lives with the wisdom that they could impart. Children listen to stories much more readily than they do to lectures.
This is why I was thrilled to find Chase Collins’ book because she makes this very point. Children’s lives are rich with fantasy. It is something essential to childhood, and their imagination is how they begin to navigate their way through this complex life.
Books are wonderful and necessary, but when parents make up their own stories to tell children, it is a way to validate your child’s make-believe world. Collins writes, “Your children will be touched to have you affirm the imaginative world they live in, and you will show them that, along with the facts, you also see some magic in the universe.”
By telling your own stories, you will be able to pinpoint specific topics that are important for your child that day. There may be a specific issue you need to address, but even if there is not, you will be imparting your own values and beliefs through your stories. You’ll do this almost subconsciously, but Collins also says that telling stories may give you new insights to yourself as well.
If you think you are not creative enough to tell stories, then you need to read this book. It is a source of inspiration for anyone wanting to be more creative because Collins defines creativity and convinces you that you do have what it takes. Everyone does. I found the book to be beautifully written, and through her examples, I felt my creative juices begin to stir.
She also shares what she calls the nitty-gritty basic story structure:
- There was a likeable hero
- who had reason to set out on a journey
- when a threat occurred
- from which there was a hero-inspired way out
- which resulted in a safe return and a happy ending.
Yes, it’s the basic structure of many beloved fairy tales, books and movies.
I know what you’re thinking because I thought it too. Why tell young children stories that may be scary (i.e., the threat)? And why tell children stories with only happy endings when that isn’t realistic? Chase Collins convinced me that telling children stories with this structure is important, and though I urge you to read the book for her detailed explanations, I will try to put it into a nutshell:
Children are smart. They already know that the world is challenging. They tackle new and scary moments everyday even though we may not realize it because we’re looking at their lives through the lens of an adult. Trying to shield them from scary stuff doesn’t help them because they want guidance from us as to how to confront life. (I should mention, however, that when you tell your own story, you don’t have to make the threat gruesome and horrifying. It could simply be a problem that needs to be solved.)
Children do not have the experience to see the shades of gray in life that adults do, so giving them what may be a realistic ending to an adult is what may frighten and puzzle the child. Collins writes that unhappy endings do “…nothing to build a courageous spirit or a willingness to let go of infantile things.”
By telling children stories in which a likeable hero confronts a threat and overcomes it, we are telling them that life is full of struggles, but we know that they have the ability to face them and overcome them. By giving them happy endings, we are telling them that life is worth living.
After explaining this concept to my husband, he said, “That’s something adults need to hear too.” Indeed, how many of us have become disillusioned with life, tired, and broken? We know that life is hard. Maybe telling some fairy tales can remind us why it’s worth living.
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This column was first printed in The Barrow Journal on Sept. 7, 2011.