The Power of Storytelling to Children

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[NOTE: In another related article, I discuss why it’s important to expose kids to stories of neighborhood play.]

What makes stories such a powerful influence on children? Fundamentally, good stories entertain children, so they grip them emotionally, hold their attention, and make a lasting impact on their memories. Certainly, stories can have a lesson embedded in them as well, but they entertain first, and teach second.

Robert McKee, the famous trainer of screenwriters and author of the screenwriter’s “bible,” Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting, writes eloquently on how stories are best structured to entertain. He identifies two vital elements of story that apply equally to both media-based stories and oral stories: 1) a protagonist worthy of empathy and 2) a plot that focuses on antagonism.

  1. a protagonist worthy of empathy: Audience members want to empathize with the protagonist, or main character. In other words, they want to identify with him or her somehow. This empathy is the glue that keeps audience members engaged. So, when we tell stories from the Golden Age of childhood (20th Century until around 1980), children should feel that the protagonist is like them, not an inscrutable character from a bygone era. In other words, children need to understand how the context of the Golden Age was different, so they could imagine doing the same thing as the protagonist if they were there. In addition, protagonists need to have some rough edges – i.e. they cannot be all good. Parents telling their children their own stories must present themselves with faults, even if that means admitting that they acted in ways they don’t want their children to act.

    In the course of hearing numerous stories from my father during my childhood, I learned a fair amount about the context of his world, and about things he did that were less than perfect. He grew up in a Pittsburgh, PA slum in the 1930s and 40s. For instance, he would sneak into places with his friends rather than pay the entry fee because he grew up during the Great Depression and his family was poor; he was insecure with girls, partly because of the appearance of his nose – he broke it three times and the doctors didn’t do as good a job of resetting it as they probably would today; and he had a serious reading problem that went unnoticed until he was in college. So, he was always very human to me. If I didn’t know about the context of his world and his many imperfections, I wouldn’t have paid attention to his stories which painted a more rosy picture of him.
  2. a plot that focuses on antagonism: Compelling stories expose conflicts, rather than sweeping them under the rug. In fact, they make these conflicts central to the story, and then show how the protagonist overcomes them with drama that culminates in a climax. This formula makes for an emotionally gripping, entertaining story. In addition, nothing is ever totally black or totally white. Situations are complex. Children as well as adults understand that real life is this way, so they’re not interested in a story that is totally predictable, where the good guy wins and you knew it all along. Golden Age stories of play in which all the kids laugh and sing “Kum-ba-ya” the whole time and no one loses or gets frightened or hurt are boring.

    The main reason my father’s stories about his shack are so memorable for me is that building it and maintaining it was such a struggle. Dad and his friends scrounged for materials from all over to build it, and they locked it up to keep other kids from trying to use it. Then, one day in the winter, the pot belly stove they put in there to keep it warm in the winter caused a fire, and it burned to the ground. After the initial shock of seeing their hangout destroyed, they built it again even better.

In summary, when we parents tell our own stories of neighborhood play to our children, we need them to understand who we really were and the context of our lives of that time, and our stories themselves need to describe the antagonism we encountered between good and bad, not just the good things. Regarding the latter, of course, parents usually don’t have the presence of mind to develop antagonistic tension the way McKee would recommend. Often, these “stories” are extemporaneous little comments that pop up in our mind when we see something in our life today that reminds us of something in our childhood. Still, we should try to apply the principles described in this section to polish our stories of childhood play and make them more entertaining.

Storytelling is a dying art, but I believe it is one well worth cultivating for parents. In the days before electronic media, stories told by members of a family after dinner, both of the day and of days past, were the family entertainment for the evening. In Ireland, after-dinner gatherings at the family hearth were formal affairs for storytelling, where itinerant storytellers would often come to tell a story in exchange for a meal and a night of lodging. These stories were often two hours long or more – the equivalent of a family movie today.

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