The Power of Stories
Updated: May 3, 2018
This post is a continuation of my last article all about how words give us ways to capture abstract ideas. Once we can contain an idea, an object, an emotion in a word, we can began to process information about that idea. As young children grow, they gain experience with the world, their vocabulary grows, and with that they become more adept at a whole variety of skills, including identifying and regulating their emotions.
But still, there is so much data to process. How does the human brain do it?
The beauty of words is that they can be combined into all sorts of combinations to capture an infinite number of ideas. And all those ideas can once again be organized into stories. In other words, stories are another kind of basket for storing information. Stories can take a variety of experiences and organize them with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
I should note here, that I am not thinking about fictional stories. (How any human manages to make up an entirely pretend story, is beyond me. That just seems like magic to me.) But, here I mean the true stories that we tell about ourselves and our lives. For example, I have taken a variety of my own memories and turned it into this story about myself:
I have always been a person who loves to move a lot. As a child I was always doing handstands and cartwheel around my home. I loved to go for long bike rides. I reveled in falling down in the grass during gym class. As an adult, I have worked as a preschool teacher and a construction worker, both of which keep me moving on the job. And now, as a middle aged adult, I go to dance classes several times a week.
Why do we do this?
We have so many years, days, and seconds of experiences. It can be hard to keep track and make sense if them all. But if we put them into stories, we are doing what humans do so
well. We are observing, noticing patterns, creating categories, and with that, we are making sense of our lives. We are learning about ourselves and our world. We are giving our experiences a structure so that we can look at them again and again, and name them.
Most of us carry and tell these stories in our heads, or we tell them to close friends and family over the course of our daily conversations. But when we write them down in the pages of a book, they have an even more permanent home. It is less likely to be lost or forgotten. You can pull it off the shelf, and read it any time. You can share it with someone who is far away.
And this, my friends, is why I started Tiny Pumpkin Press. Because I love giving children their own stories to hold in their hands, to see themselves in the pictures, and to say, "That's me! I did that!" I want to introduce children to the practice of viewing their own life and accomplishments as a story that is unfolding every day.
There has been research showing that families that tell family stories, about themselves and the people that came before, raise more resilient children. That is, children who can better handle stress. I read about this research in this NY Times article in 2013, and it has stuck with me all these years later. Researchers gave children a list of questions about their family, and found that being able to answer more questions about their family history, "turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness." The article goes on to explain that the healthiest family narrative will go something like this: We have had good times and hard times, but we always stuck together family. Because stories are a way to tell your children everything that people are capable of accomplishing. Even when the going gets tough.
Here is the ending of that article:
"When faced with a challenge, happy families, like happy people, just add a new chapter to their life story that shows them overcoming the hardship. This skill is particularly important for children, whose identity tends to get locked in during adolescence.
The bottom line: if you want a happier family, create, refine and retell the story of your family’s positive moments and your ability to bounce back from the difficult ones. That act alone may increase the odds that your family will thrive for many generations to come."
It's pretty powerful stuff.