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Why Are Stories Important? Do They Really Matter?


I touched on the idea that stories are important for learning in our January 5th email when I explained why we look for stories that are not only entertaining and engaging, but also that teach, enlighten, and empower readers. This has been a deliberate choice based on a book I read several years ago, but to which I often refer, Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story.

 

In the first chapter she lays out the vast array of information we are presented with each second of the day. Our brains though are only capable of registering a tiny portion of them. As a result, our subconscious brains have developed a system for deciphering the important bits worth paying attention to so we can survive.


While our conscious minds are slow to process our surroundings, tasks, or problems, our adaptive, or cognitive subconscious mind and learned from our previous experiences and lessons to ignore irrelevant stimuli and to react to critical stimuli before our conscious minds can begin to process what is happening. Neuroscientists assure us that this ability is critical to ensuring our survival.

 

For example, have you ever ducked before realizing that someone had thrown something at you? Or have you started to take a step into the sidewalk, only to pull up short just before a car roars by? Perhaps you slammed on the breaks and then realized someone just ran a red light?

 

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio tells us that our brains have solved the problem of how to make all the sensory data we receive easily understandable and relevant is through storytelling. In other words, we think in stories. “Story is the language of experience, whether it’s ours, someone else’s, or that of fictional characters.” (Cron, Wired for Story, 2012, p. 8)

 

This gives new urgency to the advice that it is good to read to your children far beyond simply helping them learn to read or developing in them a love of reading.  

 

Hannah Sheldon-Dean says that “By reading to your child starting at a young age, even before they are able to communicate verbally, you help lay the neurological groundwork for effective language use and literacy” by exposing them to vocabulary and grammar that they wouldn’t normally hear in spoken communication with parents and childcare providers.

 

Clinical Expert Laura Phillips, PsyD senior director of the Learning and Development Center at the Child Mind Institute adds that, “Reading and exposure to words helps kids maximize their language and cognitive capacity.” She also says that reading stories to children helps them to develop background knowledge that will help them navigate school and life. (Sheldon-Dean, “Why it is Important to Read to Your Child?”)

 

Hannah Sheldon-Dean goes on to state that through stories, children “gain an appreciation for other people’s feelings, as well as other cultures, lifestyles, and perspectives.” Children can learn how to handle their own feelings in healthy ways by listening to stories of others. Sheldon-Dean says, “Seeing characters in books experience big emotions like anger or sadness lets kids know that these feelings are normal – and gives them a chance to talk about their own difficult feelings, too.”

 

Deborah Farmer Kris of PBS Kids for Parents in her article “Why Reading Aloud to Kids Helps Them Thrive,” suggests that parents should start reading to children early from infanthood or toddlerhood, read the pictures, and press the pause button. “Look at the characters and the setting and make predictions about what might happen.… Help kids make connections between what they read and the world around them.”

 

I know that some of the most memorable lessons I learned growing up came from stories my mother told me, from books I’d read, or movies I’d watched. I learned from an early age to behave and stay close to Mom when we had to walk to the bus, or the mole people would come and take us away to work as their slaves in their holes in the ground.

 

I have studied many myths and fairytales from across many different cultures, continents, and time periods and it is apparent these stories were intended to instruct. The creation stories tell us where people came from and why we matter. Don’t talk to stranger or you might end up captured by a witch who wants to eat you, like Hansel and Gretel. Though if you do end up in such a situation, remember to use your wits, as Gretel did when she saved her brother and pushed the witch into her own oven, killing her, so that they could escape with the witch’s treasure.

 

Stories also provide the lessons and values that are most important to a given society. Homer’s Odyssey andIliad provide historical clues along with classic values of physical strength, strategic thinking, and wisdom important to Greek rulers and warriors.

 

The stories society tells can change over time too, as societies change and evolve, which can be for the better or for the worst, depending on one’s perspective. The story of the “Ant and the Grasshopper” that I grew up with taught us to work hard or we would starve in the winter. More modern versions have changed this message to teach that we each have different talents and value and can support one another, as the grasshopper sings and entertains the ants while they work.

 

Stories matter. We should all value stories, read them to our children, grandchildren, students, or for ourselves. But we also need to be discerning in the stories we tell and share. What are the messages we want to pass on? What is the impact we want to have on our family, community, and society? How can we best share our experiences and values?

 

Perhaps a topic for another day. Take care and have a great week!

 

“Stories are about how we, rather than the world around us, change. They grab us only when they allow us to experience how it would feel to navigate the plot. Thus story … is an internal journey, not an external one.” – Lisa Cron, Wired for Story

 


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