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Tell me a story

We all know that reading books to our young children is good for them. Teachers, pediatricians, and former First Ladies all tout the value of reading to kids. Contrary to conventional wisdom, however, reading books to children does not help them learn to read.

When we set aside our warm fuzzy images of a parent and child curled up in a rocking chair poring over a book together, and actually examine the data, we see a different picture. Sophisticated eye-tracking studies reveal that young children are looking pretty much everywhere but at the words when adults read a book to them. During the average book-reading session, a 4-year-old is looking at the print a mere 5% of the time. Numerous other studies, both correlational and experimental, tell us that shared book-reading does not directly help children’s letter recognition or word-reading abilities.

Does this mean we should throw the picture books out with the Etch-a-Sketch and the See ’n Say as amusing but not particularly useful educational tools? No. Shared book-reading sessions, particularly when adults make them interactive and fun, are excellent ways to promote children’s spoken language, their story skills, their understanding of the world, and their love of books. All of these skills will be absolutely vital later for children’s reading, when they are past the learning-to-read phase and entering the reading-to-learn phase at about age 8 or 9.

What you may not know is that family storytelling is another way to help your child’s language skills. New research shows that telling stories together about everyday events promotes many of the same language skills as shared book-reading. For some families, telling stories together is actually a more effective way of enhancing preschool children’s storytelling skills. Family storytelling also helps young children’s understanding of other people’s mental states — their emotions and beliefs — an essential skill for social interactions. In one study, preschoolers whose mothers were taught to reminisce about emotions scored nearly twice as high on a test of understanding emotions compared to preschoolers whose mothers were taught to play in a more responsive way with their children.

One mother from my longitudinal research uses this “meta” talk about mental states when discussing the everyday event of going to a new playground with her 4-year-old daughter:

Mother: Okay, what else was at the playground?
Anna: Ummm, a bridge.
Mother: There was too. There was a bridge.
Anna: A wee house, two wee houses?
Mother: Were there? Ohh. What were the houses like? I don’t remember them.
Anna: They were, one made, there was one made out of wood and one made out of tires.
Mother: Oh right. I remember the tire one. You went inside it.
Anna: It’s stinky in there.
Mother: It was? Did Emily go on the slide? (Anna shakes head yes) Did she?
Anna: That’s why she knew.
Mother: Oh, that’s how she knew it was stinky. So did you enjoy that playground?
Anna: Yep.

Family storytelling is a natural practice that you can continue with your children for your whole life – long past the age most parents are reading books with their children. In my research, teens who knew more of their family’s stories communicated more openly with their friends and engaged in more prosocial acts, such as volunteering in their community. And when parents helped their young adolescents put a positive spin on negative events, as teens they were less depressed and had better self-esteem.

Here is the same parent talking with Anna at age 12 about a difficult tennis tournament:

Mother: How did you feel at the start of the tournament?
Anna: It was alright, I was kind of nervous.
Mother: It was your biggest tournament ever, wasn’t it?
Anna: Yeah. And then I played someone and I lost but I knew I’d lose so it didn’t matter. And then I played someone else and I thought I’d win but I didn’t and I was sad.
Mother: So that was the difference?
Anna: Yeah, and then I didn’t win any of the others and then I won the last one.
Mother: And it’s not easy to talk about those really bad things is it? But do you want to say what happened in the middle? It’s like a meltdown. Really, wasn’t it? Yeah, kind of. And there were tears.
Anna: Yeah.
Mother: There were tears because it just wasn’t a good day at all, was it?
Anna: No, not really.
Mother: And you didn’t want to do it.
Anna: No.
Mother: And did your mum say that’s okay Anna, you don’t have to do it?
Anna: No (laughs).
Mother: What did mum say?
Anna: She said, what did you say?
Mother: That you had to finish the match.
Anna: You have to finish and so I did and then I got a present ’cause I kept going.
Mother: It’s really important we thought to have acknowledged the fact that you kept going on. It was really . . .
Anna: Persevering.
Mother: Perseverance in the face of extreme difficulty.

Best of all, family storytelling is free, requiring only your time, memory, and ingenuity at telling the right story at an apt moment. Unlike book-reading, family storytime can happen anywhere: on a walk, at the dinner table, or in the car. So tonight after you tuck in your child and read them a story, turn out the lights and slip in a family story of the day. Let your child ask questions and tell the parts of the story they remembered and enjoyed. You will be starting a tradition that you can keep up long past the time they’re asking to hear Madeline or Thomas the Tank Engine “just one more time.” Instead, you will hear, “Tell me a story, Dad, about the time you…”

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