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Father and Son Sitting on a FenceOur lives are made up of stories. Consider for a moment how your mind recalls almost every experience with a story. As parents, we have a treasure trove of stories within us to share with our children and use to help them mature and learn history, manners, morals, family lore, and appropriate behavior.

As technology becomes more prevalent, we are using our human story-telling skills less and less. The person-to-person, parent-to-child story is special and creates unique family bonds. Impacting on numerous levels, a story can be molded to a specific situation that your child is curious about or challenged by.

Stories help define who you are—where you live, how your family came to be there, when you were born, what you liked to do as a child, how you got to school on the first day—topics that your children love to hear about because they can relate to them. These stories give children a sense of security and identity that can be exceptionally grounding. Stories can be helpful in giving children encouragement to do something difficult. My son, intimidated and wary about taking his first standardized test, became braver and more determined after hearing about his father's stamina and courage when faced with the three-day bar examination.

I grew up with a story about my great-grandmother who, as a child, upon seeing a person with the characteristics of dwarfism for the first time, exclaimed in a loud voice about the "strange" man. She was taken home and sent to her room. Later she was visited by the man. He treated her kindly and told her a story about how important it was to be careful about what we say about others. He advised her to consider asking these questions: "Is it kind? Is it true? Is it necessary?"!

A Story for Every Purpose

A story can help us remember history, an incident, or a person. It might reinforce the importance of a rule or routine, such as:

  • Morals and Manners - George Washington could not tell a lie when asked about cutting down the cherry tree.
  • History - Pioneers on the prairie built sod houses when they found rich land for farming, but few trees for lumber.
  • Family History - How Grandpa walked over 5 miles to school and only missed school one day when the creek flooded over the bridge.
  • Encouragement - How Mom's recollection of nervous feelings before her first piano recital helped my performance anxiety.
  • Good behavior - The pleasure of seeing Grandma's smile when presented with a special birthday greeting from her grandchild.
  • Security and identity - How a friendly policeman rescued you when your bike had a flat tire. You were 6 years old and knew your phone number and address.
Impact on Child's Development

Having examples and options about how to think about the world are important for a child's growth and self-image. The stories we tell ourselves can become repetitive and narrow if we don't have opportunities to explore different roles and ways of thinking prompted by hearing others' stories. Parents' examples of how they have thought and behaved give children a rich choice of acceptable options.

Listening to Children's Stories

Verbalizing helps us clarify and make decisions as we tell a story. Stories give us a sense of belonging. Encourage your children to tell you their own stories. Listen and give feedback. For the youngest, it might take some time, but if you are patient and ask questions now and then, the rewards are great. You might also ask your child to tell you a story about a particular topic, place, or experience. Be specific. "How was your day?" does not suffice. Try starting your inquiry with "Tell me about..."

Stories of the Future

Every day we add to our treasure trove of experiences which can become meaningful stories to share. Many can be told to our children who will in turn add them to their memory banks. What stories will your children have to tell their own children when they grow up?

"Family stories can be told nearly anywhere... They can inspire us, protect us, and bind us to others... Remember that your children may have them for a lifetime."
—Elaine Reese, "What Kids Learn from Hearing Family Stories" The Atlantic, December, 2013

—by Jane M. Jacobs, M.A., Montessori Educational Consultant at Montessori Services. She is a trained primary Montessori directress and also a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She has taught children aged 2 to 7 years in Montessori schools, Headstart, and also in a preschool for children with developmental challenges. In her counseling practice, she helps individuals, couples, and families.

—Originally Published 2020