Did I Ever Tell You About the Time…?

The classic story of The Wizard of Oz, and in particular the ending where the Good Witch asks Dorothy what she had learned on her journey, has been on my mind this week. Dorothy says, "I suppose I learned that when you wish and wish for your heart's desire but you can't find it, then maybe it's in your own back yard and you never really lost it to begin with." Why, you may ask, have I been considering that story? Well, the month of May is National Share-a-Story Month and I have been reflecting on the importance of stories in our lives, and not just for children.

As parents we want our children to embrace core values such as cooperation, kindness and honesty. However, often these are sometimes the most challenging concepts for us to get across. In a blink of an eye our children will spot a lecture coming and are quick to mentally retreat, leaving behind a blank expression that nearly every parent recognises with a sigh. Fortunately, "in their own back yard" parents already have a strategy that is fully capable of effectively delivering these messages to ready and open ears. Our secret weapon is one we have always had - and children have always responded to; the story.

In our current digital world there are some who might relegate storytelling to the dusty realm of a dim and distant past. Yet storytelling remains strongly rooted in our human cultural experience after all those years. We see it surface in many forms, from a sales pitch and speeches delivered by public figures to the enthusiastic promise of broadcasters for "More on that story after our commercial break..."

The stories from an organisation, and the stories its leaders and employees tell, help solidify relationships in a way that factual statements encapsulated in bullet points or numbers do not. Storytelling forges connections among people, and between people and ideas. Stories convey the culture, history and values that unite people.

Amongst children, however, storytelling holds even a stronger and deeper magic. Parents worldwide will verify the power that storytelling has with children. The magical opening, "Once upon a time..." or "Many years ago..." will focus young eyes and ears which, moments before, had been on the hunt for the next activity. Even casual openings such as, "Here's a story I heard today you might like..." or "Did you hear the story about...?" bring impatient feet to a stand still. The sense of concentration is palpable. I have been fortunate to observe some excellent storytellers throughout my career. Each one managed to transport the children into a different world with their natural ability to tell a story without a script.

What is it about stories which captivates children? Certainly the pattern of stories (a beginning, middle and end) sets up a structure that children recognise and understand. In most cases the ending is sure to be satisfying. Indeed, children seem to respond well to any story offering magic or fantasy, perhaps because, being young, they live more closely to the outer worlds of magic and fantasy themselves. As children progress through their schooling, their personal sense of time and place sharpens, but the world of magic and storyland beckons at the borders.

Stories from life can also capture powerful claims on a child's imagination when the story features the child, family members, friends or other people the child knows. Openings such as, "Did I tell you the story about your Grandad, who did a loop-the-loop, fell out of the plane at the top yet ended back in his seat when the aircraft reached the bottom” or "I'll never forget what happened when you were just learning to walk and..." also secure a child's attention because of the personalised nature of the tale.

Add to all of the factors from the experience of hearing a story (the voice of a storyteller, the impact of direct eye contact, the entertaining quality of hand gestures, facial expressions, ad-libs and dramatic reactions to events in the story) and it is not surprising that children are captivated by stories.

While we can agree that stories are a powerful tool, it is also clear that stories do not necessarily deliver positive messages. In fact, stories can just as easily deliver negative messages, and often do. Imagine that a story is a form of transportation, a kind of express vehicle. Its contents may be fresh juices apricots or cartons of explosives. The contents that are loaded onto the "Storytelling Express” at the outset of its journey will determine what's received at its destination. As a parent, our role is to load worthwhile messages onto the “Storytelling Express” and send it to its destination - the hearts of our children.

For more details of National Share-a-Story Month, and some useful reading lists, please log on to: http://fcbg.org.uk/national-share-a-story-month/

Story, as it turns out, was crucial to our evolution -- more so than opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs let us hang on; story told us what to hang on to.” - Lisa Cron