Telling my four boys stories from my childhood is one of my favorite things to do as I tuck them in for bed. And they love hearing them, often asking questions, adding commentary, and probing for more detail. Over the years, they’ve heard me spin tales about Rusty Chain, the mean neighborhood dog that would chase my brother and me as we pedaled down some dirt road on our bicycles. In the end, our trusty dog Jams always chases Rusty Chain away and saves the day.
By sharing these (sometimes embellished) memories, I get a chance to really connect with my kids. And I get to teach them lessons about adventure, work ethic, and growing up on a rural American farm. Most nights at my house end with a Rusty Chain story, and these are told after my boys have either read on their own or had a bedtime story read to them. You can imagine how excited I was to learn that telling stories to children has amazing benefits, beyond those we see with our own eyes.
Sure, we’ve all heard of the rewards of reading to our kids. We know that it can help advance their language skills, help their own reading, and extend their learning about the world. Clearly, reading books with your kids is a great idea.
But what about telling stories? As it turns out, new research has found that everyday family stories not only offer many of the same benefits of reading – they even help children develop several additional skills.
Over the last two decades, a select group of researchers have investigated the impact of family storytelling. Findings from the many experiments and inquiries demonstrate that when parents share more family stories with their children, their children benefit in a multitude of ways. Good news for Rusty Chain – the more color, the better; telling stories in a detailed and responsive way increases the benefits to kids.
How did researchers come to their findings? In one example, a group of experimental studies focused on parents who reminisced about everyday life in a detailed way with their preschool-aged children. One to two years later, scientists checked back in with this group of kids. They found that the children told richer, more complete narratives compared to other children whose parents didn’t use the reminiscing techniques. The kids of parents who used new ways to reminisce showed a better understanding of other people’s thoughts and emotions.
And it didn’t stop there. When the children in this group were revisited years later, while in their preteen years, they were found to have higher levels of self-esteem and stronger self-concepts. As adolescents, this group demonstrated a stronger knowledge of family history, better coping skills, lower rates of depression and anxiety, and more robust identities.
What’s the takeaway? Kids whose parents gave them rich descriptions of the daily ins and outs of life from their parents were more adept in their school years when learning to read complex material and to get along with others. Later, these kids grew more easily into teenagers who felt connected to the important people in their lives.
Stories that created these benefits ranged from stories about the parent’s day, the child’s day, about the parent’s childhood, or about a grandparent’s childhood. And the benefits of engaging your children in these types of stories don’t have to stop when they grow out of the bedtime story phase. Family storytelling can continue to be a part of how you connect with your kids at any age.
All of us have stories to tell and we don’t have to limit ourselves to telling only the stories that have a perfect ending. Research has shown that telling stories about life’s difficult moments, when focused on teaching a good lesson and aimed at the child’s level of understanding, can provide an opportunity for children to learn a great deal about life. After all, sharing family stories shares the fabric of your family’s personal narratives. When children are told stories about other family members, present or past, they understand who they are and from whence they came.
Ursula LeGuin said, “There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.” Storytelling has been part of the human experience for millennia. Let’s keep that tradition going with our own children or grandchildren. Our family stories bind us together. They are a part of our shared history. They can inspire children and benefit them as they grow into adults. They stay with them until the day our children share the stories with their own children. If that’s not powerful, what is?