“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:
035: Is your parenting All Joy and No Fun?
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....