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How Parents Can Use Storytelling as a Superpower

How Parents Can Use Storytelling as a Superpower

Mother reading story to her daughter-storytelling

Can Parents Use Storytelling as a Superpower? I was recently putting my daughters to bed with our ritual bedtime story. The written selection of the evening was Dr. Seuss’s You Are Kind, featuring the gentle and benevolent Horton the Elephant. My daughters are twins who just turned two years old, and regularly reading them stories has allowed me to see their curiosity and memory progress literally overnight.

There are countless studies supporting the importance of reading to our children to promote literacy and language, but what struck me as I read Dr. Seuss’s words of affirmation – “you are an amazing friend”, “you stand up for what’s right”, “you protect those who need it, no matter how small” – was the idea that storytelling in all forms can shape our children’s entire worldview. Beyond the colorful pages of our favorite children’s books, we are illustrating countless stories for our children every day – stories of our family, our neighbors, strangers, and friends.  What are the affirmations in these stories?

What I realize more every day as a parent is that I am the most important storyteller in my children’s lives. I can read them the positive, uplifting, inclusive words of Dr. Seuss, The Giving Tree (Shel Silverstein), Grace Byers (I Am Enough), and Maribeth Boelts (Those Shoes), but if the real-life stories I am illustrating and reinforcing do not match up with the ideals from their storybooks, my daughters will quickly be the products of my influence, not of Horton the Friendly Elephant’s. 

What recently brought this realization to life for me was a simple family activity. Several times a week, weather permitting, my husband, my daughters, my dog, and I take a walk through our neighborhood in our New Jersey suburb.  Before we are within earshot of neighbors and pedestrians, my daughters are shouting “hi!” and “hi doggy!” and “hey guys!” They address everyone as though they’re the most exciting person (or doggy) they’ve ever seen. When my husband and I first witnessed this, we laughed about it later and remarked at how social they seem to be.  When I stopped to wonder what had shaped that behavior, I realized they had been watching their mom and dad say hi, stop to chat, wave, and smile at our neighbors since they were born.  Without thinking about it, we have illustrated a story of connection and openness, albeit imperfectly, within our neighborhood such that our daughters have now inserted themselves into the story as active participants.  Every element of their upbringing will continue to shape their behavior in this way.

When I consider the benefits of moving to a bigger house with a bigger yard on a quieter street, I have to consider what new narrative I’ll be inserting my children into through that choice and change.  In evaluating what preschool to choose for them, I have to consider who will be teaching them from both a peer and instructor perspective.  Will they be surrounded by children and teachers who look just like them?  Or will they be in an environment where they are exposed to and celebrating differences in others? Will my choices for them to align with and empower the stories I read to them every night?  Or will the words from these books fade to white noise – an ignorable hum in the background – while my choices based on comfort (“this school is such a short drive from home!”), habit (“Let’s hang out with those neighbors, they seem similar to us”), or selfishness (“I hope the girls don’t say hi to the mail carrier right now, I’m not in the mood”) ultimately reveal to my children the story that I believe in?

While I am all too aware of the ugly realities that our children will one day realize and experience, inevitably tainting their once bright-eyed innocence, research tells us that their ability to process and manage those realities will be based on the foundation laid by their caregiver(s).  It is not enough to simply tell our children to be kind, brave, and curious; we must consciously and consistently labor to model the way for them.

We are living in a time when the stories of others have never been more accessible- stories that have the power to shape and influence all of us, but particularly our impressionable young children. Let us be storytellers who invite our children into a narrative so compelling, so engaging, and so hopeful that they become grownups who are amazing friends, who stand up for what’s right, and who protect those who need it, no matter how small.

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