Storytelling connects children with history, families and each other

Few things bond a family more than shared tales and experiences. Not only is storytelling fun — who doesn’t love hearing about the good-natured scrapes a parent got into when they were their age or what life was like in the “olden” days for grandma — but the regular exchange of stories, be they personal histories or tales of fiction, can make a significant positive impact on your child’s development.

Kathleen Dexter, M.S.W., is a contract administrator for The Children’s Trust, and a licensed clinical social worker with extensive experience in the design and implementation of child and family services programs.

Storytelling allows young children to become familiar with sounds, words and language while simultaneously sparking their imaginations. It deepens literacy skills and stimulates curiosity. And kids from families who regularly speak of their history enjoy higher self-esteem, stronger self-concepts, better coping skills and greater resiliency. Parents and caregivers benefit, too, because sharing stories with and reading to children promotes strong, long-lasting relationships.

Why is storytelling so powerful?

It connects kids to family. For young children, this can mean sharing stories about your family’s past and encouraging them to talk to as many different relatives as possible about their history. Those age 7 and under are particularly validated by these family stories. Narratives about themselves and their loved ones help kids feel safe, give them a sense of belonging and clarify who they are. The more children know about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives and the higher their self-esteem.

It inspires a love of reading. Remind children that everyone has a story to tell — and that books can open doors into other people’s worlds. The stories they digest and the characters they get to know, in fact, can become like friends. It’s also important for kids to understand that books are a useful source of information and that good reading skills are critical for their future success. Reading also helps children with their confidence levels, language skills and overall learning. And yes, picture books count!

It builds memory muscle. Sharing and resharing family stories and books offers preschoolers an exercise in memorization skills, as the more they hear something, the more they’ll remember the different roles their family members played, key plot points and character names. Hearing stories time and time again also provides children with a guide for when they begin telling and writing their own stories.

It encourages listening. Listening to stories helps children learn to listen more and talk less. Of course, you do want interaction, so allow kids to ask questions and actively engage, but remind them of the importance of listening. Sometimes, the answer to their question is the next part of your story or on the very page you’re reading.

It builds on language skills. Stories are a great way to introduce new words and ideas into a child’s language, starting with picture books for the very young and working up to more complex novels for teenagers. Through them, children learn about concepts such as shape, size, space, numbers and the names of objects, among other lessons. They also teach kids about everyday tasks — such as how to brush their teeth, take care of animals and deal with nightmares — as well as more complex ideas like the importance of sharing, the passage of time and compassion for others.

It helps kids cope with feelings. Fiction based on real-life helps children handle their own life experiences by showing them how diverse the world is and how some people’s lives are vastly different than theirs. Stories tap into our emotions and helps kids understand that feelings are normal and should be expressed.

It’s relaxing. The soothing familiarity of a much-loved story, the rhyming and repetition in a picture book, plus the sense of security that time spent reading together can foster, all aid in relaxation. Hearing or reading a story allows kids to forget the stresses and strains of the day and indulge in a little fun or fantasy. It’s why reading before bedtime is such a wonderful activity.

It gets kids writing. A simple pen and notebook can go a long way in empowering children to verbalize their experiences. Kids needs to know they have a sacred, private space to record their past and present. Writing in their own words encourages children to recognize that they have a voice — and that what they say really does matter.

Kathleen Dexter, M.S.W., is a contract administrator for The Children’s Trust, and a licensed clinical social worker with extensive experience in the design and implementation of child and family services programs. For more information, visit