For Parents: Tell Me a Story

“Tell me about when you were a little girl.” “Tell me about how you and daddy met.” “Tell me about your grandma and grandpa.” Simone, my daughter, was always asking for more “Tell me about…” stories. She loved to hear stories that our friend Teresa, in Rome, would tell her about what it was like in Italy when she was a little girl. My stories of growing up in Brooklyn (in the olden days!) intrigued her. She ate these stories up. She wanted the same story told over and over. She never seemed to tire of the same story just as she never tired of hearing Goodnight Moon before going to sleep each night. . Now, years later, my 18 year old grandson is hungry for stories about my father, almost as though my memories might provide a magic key to unlocking some mystery that might be hidden.

Children just love to hear stories about what seems to uncover the secret lives of their parents. Now while families are all sheltered together at home, why not have a special time a few days or evenings for story sharing. Adults can begin the storytelling, remembering special moments from their childhood. After a few days of story sharing, children can be encouraged to share their own stories about memories from their lives.

Storytelling has, over the years, taken many forms. Children might find it interesting to learn that cavemen told stories by writing pictures on the walls of caves. They used a stick to draw onto muddy cave walls.

When I was teaching kindergarten, the children in my class were fascinated to learn about how the Egyptians wrote messages in hieroglyphs, using pictures to stand for words and sounds. We had a flurry of hieroglyph writing for a while!

Of course, oral storytelling has a rich, international tradition. The Cherokee Native Americans gathered together as different versions of the creation story were (and still are) shared as are more moralistic stories that tell why a certain animal looks a particular way, or acts with unique behaviors.

Anansi, the spider who is a cunning trickster, is the subject of the very rich oral storytelling tradition that was brought to this country from West Africa and the Caribbean. Anansi was such a trickster that he was considered able to turn the tables on the slave owners, allowing the slaves to gain the upper hand. He was considered an inspiration of resistance. Telling the Anansi stories allowed the Africans who were enslaved in the United States to maintain a connection to their homelands.

Some years ago, when I visited the early childhood schools in Reggio Emilia, Italy, I was surprised to see how few books they had their classrooms as compared to the classrooms back in NYC. I asked one of the teachers about this and she told me that the Italian families would sit around the dinner table and listen to stories told by the elders in the household. Dinner would last until late in the evening and this rich tradition of family story telling took the place of our bedtime stories.

Story telling can become a fun, comforting and inspiring tradition in your home during this pandemic. If you have spent, say, a week sharing stories, why not come up with the exciting idea of putting all the stories into books? You could staple or click a few blank pages together and begin the process as collaboration. Draw pictures together to recreate one of the stories.

If your child is young and not doing traditional writing, you might wonder if you should be transcribing the story onto the pages. This is a tricky question. Sometimes, in my class, a child would ask me a question about some aspect of religion. That’s when I would say, “That’s a good question to ask a grown-up in your family.”

I have my own ideas on whether adults should be writing on children’s stories but I would say that this is something to ask your child’s teacher. What are the protocols for writing in children’s books? Some teachers transcribe the child’s words and some ask the child to write “as best as you can”. My personal instinct is to leave the writing up to the child. What looks like random marks on a paper to an adult can have very personal meaning to the child who is writing a story. If you want to read more about this way of thinking, I would suggest the Heinemann book, Already Ready, Nurturing Writers in Preschool and Kindergarten by Katie Wood Ray and Matt Glover. However, bottom line is that you might want to be consistent with the instruction your child will be getting when school returns and so it probably makes sense to consult the classroom teacher on this.

Here’s another possible fun follow-up to story telling. If you shared the history of cavemen’s wall paintings with your child, find a big piece of paper if you can, tape it to the bedroom wall, give your child some crayons and talk with him about what family story he’s going to draw as he imagines that he’s in a cave, drawing with a stick on a muddy wall!

You also can cut out strips of paper, find images of hieroglyphs on the Internet, and challenge your child to write one of the stories with hieroglyphs! Remember that it will be the process of thinking about what to write, not whether or not the final product is correct, that counts here.

If you have family photo albums, sharing them together can spark the telling and retelling of family stories.

The next time your child says, “Tell me a story” why not begin a meaningful storytelling tradition in your home?

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