Ever since humans first learned to speak, parents have told stories to their children. Storytelling has the power not only to entertain, but to teach, to heal, and to transmit traditions and family lore from one generation to the next. Yet in this electronic age, families are in danger of losing their storytelling heritage.
“The tradition of telling stories within the family has really suffered,” says Jay O’Callahan, one of America’s best-known professional storytellers. “In times past, parents were probably more comfortable in their storytelling role than they are now. They had more time to spend with their children and they didn’t have to compete with television.”
Parents make wonderful storytellers because they have strong bonds with the listener and they know their child’s needs better than anyone else, says O’Callahan. His career began when he started making up tales for his children more than 20 years ago.
Whether the legends are wellworn folk tales, family lore, or fantasies invented on the spot, they convey to the young listener a special sense of security and a knowledge of his or her place in the world. Children love to curl up on a parent’s lap and hear a story told by someone who knows and cares about them. Television can’t give them that.
Stories are perhaps the most effective teaching tool ever used. All of the world’s great religions use tales and parables to preserve and transmit beliefs and values. Families can do that too.
“Stories work when lectures don’t,” says Bill Harley, whose yarns about his family are often heard on public radio. He recalls an outing when he and his youngest son, Dylan, were lagging behind while the rest of the family started up a mountain. After a quarter of a mile, Dylan was resisting every effort to coax him up the slope. Finally, Harley said, “Did I ever tell you about when I first went up the mountain as a boy?” Within a few minutes, father and son were climbing together, hand in hand. The story went with them to the top.
The positive power of weaving a tale goes deeper than teaching. Today, says O’Callahan, storytelling is being rediscovered as a healing activity. “When a child is crying, you put your arms around the child and talk. The mere sound of your voice is soothing. But when you tell the child a story, the power of imagination is also putting its arms around the child.
“A number of the stories I tell came out of pain. When my son, Teddy, was four, he bumped his shin and was outside crying. I went out and there he was with a badly bruised shin. I wanted to make him forget his troubles, so I told him a story.”
One of O’Callahan’s favorite examples of healing through storytelling is a true tale told to him by a woman he met while he was performing at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee.
The woman, who worked with children dying of cancer, told O’Callahan about an 11-year-old named Jonathan who had leukemia. He had told his parents that after his death he would like them to scatter his ashes on Lake Michigan.
“When Jonathan died,” O’Callahan continues, “his parents and his brother, Charlie, who was five, went out on their boat and cast Jonathan’s ashes on the waters. A monarch butterfly flew down and Jonathan’s mother said, ‘Look! That’s Jonathan!’
“The next day they were out on their boat and again a monarch butterfly flew down to them, and this time Charlie said, ‘Look! That’s Jonathan.’ Later, they were on a beach and Charlie was stirring sand with a stick. An old gray moth flew up from the sand and Charlie shouted, ‘Look! That’s Jonathan…but he’s wearing a different shirt.'”
O’Callahan says he went on to his next performance at the festival and told everyone the story. “To me it was that startling use of language that only a child could come up with. I think it allowed the family to see Jonathan’s death as a transformation.”
When beginners tell stories, they often lack confidence. In that case, O’Callahan says, a parent might start by simply reading to the child. “But play with the rhythm of the words and the sound of your voice,” he suggests. “Discover the fun of the tale reflected in the child’s eyes. Doing this brings out the playfulness of the adult. When the adult is feeling playful enough, she can put down the book entirely and say, ‘When I was a little girl….’ That invites the child into the adult’s childhood.”
After a parent has gained more confidence, it’s fun to begin inventing allegories on the spot, building on everyday experiences.
Storytelling takes the ordinary stuff of life and turns it into gifts for your children. Along with each tale, the listener receives an unspoken message that says, “You are special so I made this up for you.”
RELATED ARTICLE: TIPS FOR TELLERS
Bill Harley, a master teller of tales, offers the following suggestions for parents who would like to enrich their storytelling skills:
* Choose stories that you like to tell. Select tales with a clear, simple, straightforward plot and a limited cast of characters. Folk legends are a natural choice for beginners.
* Memorizing a story word for word is generally not the best way to learn. When you know the story, start to tell it to yourself in your own words. When you’re comfortable with the story, tell it to someone else.
* There is no one right way to spin a yarn. In the end, a particular style or technique is not nearly as important as the willingness and interest in sharing a story with someone.
* Be aware of the power of silence. It is as much a part of the story as words. It adds depth and excitement, and gives the listener, as well as yourself, a chance to picture what is happening.
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