Life Stories: Children Find Meaning in Old Family Tales

Wall Street Journal (New York, NY), March 11, 2009


As parents cut budgets, many are finding family stories have surprising power to help children through hard times. Storytelling experts say the phenomenon reflects a growing national interest in telling tales, evidenced by a rise in storytelling events and festivals. New research bears out the value of family stories, linking teens’ knowledge of them to better behavior and mental health.

An Emory University study of 65 families with children ages 14 to 16 found kids’ ability to retell parents’ stories was linked to a lower rate of depression and anxiety and less acting-out of frustration or anger, says Robyn Fivush, a psychology professor. Knowing family stories “helps children put their own experience in perspective,” Dr. Fivush says.

The trick is telling the stories in a way children can hear. We’re not talking here about the kind of story that begins, “When I was a kid, I walked to school every day uphill both ways, barefoot in the snow.” Instead, choose a story suited to your child’s needs, and make eye contact to create “a personal experience,” says Sherry Norfolk, chairman of the National Storytelling Network, a Jonesborough, Tenn., nonprofit. “You don’t have to tell children what they should take from the story,” she says. “They can intuitively understand what the moral is.”

Subjects Covered: education, healing, personal storytelling

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