“Libby’s insatiable,” says Sarah Dufton. Libby’s five, and it’s not treats and snacks she’s craving — it’s stories about when her parents and grandparents were little, just like her. “She loves, loves, loves those stories,” says Dufton.
For example, Libby cherishes the stories about her grandmother, who grew up in a family of seven kids. “I have stories about the family travelling through the mountains and encountering bears,” says Dufton. “Libby loves that. She also likes to hear about when my siblings and I were kids and got into trouble — like the time my brother decided to give himself a bubble bath by dumping the entire bottle of shampoo into the tub.”
Being pelted with requests for stories “about when Daddy was a little boy” is a common experience for parents of young kids. Yes, they like the Pixar movies and the Magic Tree House books, but nothing seems as satisfying as the stories you tell them about earlier generations.
There are good reasons for that, says psychology professor Daniel Lagacé-Séguin of Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax. These stories are valuable to children because they teach them a number of important concepts:
Mom and Dad survived this too
It relieves children’s stress and anxiety to know that their mom and dad made it through their first day at kindergarten or having their teeth filled at the dentist — and came out of it with a funny story to tell about it.
“The story may arise from a question — ‘Did you have to get needles when you were a kid?’ — and parents can see that as an opportunity to share some experiences,” says Lagacé-Séguin. Don’t just say yes, and move on, he suggests; tell them about how nervous you were in the waiting room, and how the nurse let you practise giving needles to a doll, and in the end you barely noticed the needle going in. (And maybe how your sister, watching you get the shot, fainted and ended up with a big bruise on her forehead.)
Things change, and that’s OK
Preschoolers are sometimes pretty anxious about change. Hearing stories about their parents’ childhood sometimes shocks them (“Whoa, you didn’t have car seats when you were five?”), but also reassures them that change is an inevitable — and not always bad — part of life.
Stories can also teach how relationships change. Grandma is Daddy’s mother and took care of him when he was young; now he lives with Mommy, but helps Grandma out by cutting her grass and fixing her car. It can be quite a revelation for a preschooler to realize that Daddy was once a little boy.
People see things from different perspectives
A young preschooler, explains Lagacé-Séguin, thinks that everyone else sees the world just as he does. Stories help the child see the world through others’ eyes. Even better, if Mom tells about being lost in the woods, and later Grandpa tells about the same incident, the child learns that what was an amusing adventure to Mom was a worried search-and-rescue event for Grandpa.
These are our family’s values
The stories you choose to tell and the way you deliver them convey the values you hope to teach your children, says Lagacé-Séguin. “If you tell a story about a relative who smoked, for example, and then became ill or died, you are impressing on them that smoking isn’t good for you.”
A story about how Uncle Tim protected you from bullies when you were little shows that your family believes in helping one another — and it might also encourage your own children to come and talk to you if they, too, experience bullying.
They are like Mom and Dad and other relatives
“Children naturally desire to model themselves and be like the people they are close to. You’ll see that in the way your children imitate you,” Lagacé-Séguin says. That’s why they love to hear that Daddy also hated peas when he was little, and that Aunt Lisa’s favourite colour was purple too. Stories that point out similarities help to strengthen the bonds between parents and children, he feels.
It’s not TV
“Kids love spending this time with their parents and listening to the stories,” says Lagacé-Séguin. “The stories are almost the icing on the cake. It’s so important in this day and age — when families spend so much time apart or watching TV or on the computer — to give kids the time and attention that happens when we tell them stories.” You can tell stories while you drive in the car, while you cuddle before bed, or as you relax over a meal.
But maybe Libby Dufton summarized it best. After an afternoon of being pestered, her mother asked, exasperated, “Why do you always want me to tell you these stories?” Libby replied, “Because they help me know who I am.”
How to tell a good story
Psychology professor Daniel Lagacé-Séguin says storytelling is a valuable skill for parents. Here’s how to master it:
Keep things simple A young child isn’t ready for all the details, so keep your focus on the main action of the story. Stories can get longer and more elaborate as your child gets older.
Have a beginning, middle and end That’s not how real life is, but it makes for a more satisfying story. Really, it’s just about picking the right places to start and stop.
Connect the story to the child’s life Perhaps it’s a similarity (“Grandma used to love dogs as a child, just like you do”) or perhaps it is a difference (“Your school has 20 classes. Grandpa’s school only had three classrooms for six grades”).
Tell it with drama and enthusiasm. Kids love it if you speak in different voices or act out parts of the story.
A mother’s legacy
Professor Daniel Lagacé-Séguin’s sister-in-law passed away when her son was 10. “She wanted him to remember her, so she made us all promise that we would always tell him stories about her,” he says. “He’s 23 now, and in university, but every time I see him, I tell him another story about his mother. He keeps creating new memories of her through all these stories we’ve shared with him, and through these stories, her memory will be alive forever. It reminds me of the deep importance of telling and retelling family stories.”