Tell Your Child a Good Night Story

by Annie

joshdubyasmWhat is it about a good night story that appeals to children all over the world? We all know how deeply comforting it is to close your eyes at the end of the day with peace in your heart and hope for tomorrow. While a good night story can certainly help you achieve this, the benefits of listening to a good night story, for both the individual and the community they live in, are multifaceted and profound. Research, presented here and elsewhere, shows listening to good stories can contribute not only to a child’s academic success, but to their emotional well-being and social advancement; his/her overall happiness and, in turn, to happy families and community relationships.

Loving Hearts

Good night stories are intrinsically satisfying (Neal, 2008) because they engage the emotions and allow the child to develop positive, loving feelings. They allow the child to experience and interpret events beyond his/her immediate experience (Baker & Greene, 1977) and thus the child has the opportunity to develop emotional resiliency.

In her upcoming book, The Healing Heart; Storytelling to Promote Healthy Individuals, Families and Communities, Linda Fredericks shares that, stories convey the most profound of life’s lessons. Children hear in stories that there are other ways of thinking, feeling and acting, so they may learn through the characters in the story how to face situations with greater strength and wisdom. Many great stories from through out the world teach that there is hope, even in the darkest of situations. Stories allow listeners to explore sensitive issues in a safe and non-threatening way. Storytelling builds resiliency because it provides appropriate models for behaviour and reminds young children that they are not alone in their struggles and their pain.

A sensitive story can heal wounds by opening our hearts and allowing us to grieve.

Moreover, listening to a story can connect the listener to the deeply fulfilling experience of compassionate listening, healing past hurts and validating the feelings of another and thus develop an important life long skill.

We rarely have the experience of being deeply heard by others. Most of the time, others tune out while we speak. When we can listen to others, especially in deep, intractable conflicts, we learn about ourselves and our capacities for positive good. When we are listened too, we feel honest respect and appreciation. Conflict cannot exist in such an environment and harmony flourishes (Noll, 2003).

Nicole Pugh reports: Deep or compassionate listening is a skill promoted by many spiritual and peace-building leaders, such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Thich Naht Hanh, Marshall Rosenberg and Leah Green of the Compassionate Listening Project. Since 1999, Vietnamese Buddhist monk and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Thich Naht Hanh has sponsored groups of Palestinians and Israelis to come to
Plum Village, his global community and retreat centre in the south of France, in order to dialogue in the name of peace. Through learning the skills of deep listening and communication, these participants are able to heal from the intense emotions that have built up inside of them.

Pugh interviewed Bonnie Mansdorf, daughter of a holocaust survivor, who is founder of A Healing Among Nations, Mansdorf adds: I think one of people’s greatest yearnings is for their voice to be heard and for their gift and their wisdom to have a place to be released. [With] the skill of deep listening, you allow them to experience who they are from that place because first they feel your interest. This shifts the space tremendously when somebody feels that you are there for them and you are interested in them. A child begins to develop the skill of empathetic listening by listening to a good night story.

On the lighter side, no doubt a good story can engender a sense of wonder, fun and joyfulness for the child. Laughter is good for learning. It not only relieves stress and reduces anxiety but helps a child to relax and regain alertness, and to refocus on the task.

Open Minds

In the words of Albert Einstein, “If you want your children to be brilliant, tell them fairy tales. If you want your children to be even more brilliant, tell them even more fairy tales”.

A good night story sparks the imagination, expands curiosity and ignites creativity. It enhances brain development and is a precursor to academic success in language and other subjects at school.

Developing imagination means that the child begins to experience first hand that there are infinite possibilities available to them. They discover the true power of their minds and as they do self-confidence soars as they begin to see themselves as competent and able to accomplish their hopes and dreams.

According to storytelling expert, Linda Fredericks, listening to stories can help with develop the brain, particularly neural pathways, memory and inferential learning.

As people listen to stories, they form images in their minds that are stored in the memory as symbols. Studies have shown that humans only retain 20% of what they read, but they recall 80% of symbols. The mental images created through listening to stories, stimulates appropriate neural development in the brain. When children want to hear these stories over and over again, these connecting neural pathways are strengthened between different parts of the brain, allowing the child to incorporate new learning.

Children also begin to understand the relationships between the symbols such as animals and heroes and dragons and the values that they stand for (Fredericks, forthcoming).

Listening to the rich, metaphorical language of a good night story can help a child understand the patterns in oral language and is a necessary developmental step to becoming a competent reader and writer.  Learning in a second language is also enhanced.

Teachers often use the power of the story to hold children’s interest while they come to grips with higher order concepts which may be difficult to explain without the story as an example. This is modelled for children who use it in turn, when they face a difficult problem to solve.

Also in the classroom, particularly for children with special needs, listening to stories engages the learner by focusing attention, provoking curiosity, beckoning involvement and enquiry, leading to a more sustained engagement on the part of these children.

Developing a love of literature at an early age can open the child to a world of story and literature which is rich and alive.

The story is fundamental to life as Benton and Fox (1985) explain, “when a day passes it is no longer there. What remains of it? Nothing more than a story. If stories weren’t told or books written, we would live like the beasts, only for the day. Stories don’t help us to live better. They help us to understand living better. ”

Honoring The Past

The National Storytellers Network sees storytelling as a form of human expression where, “there are many cultures on earth, each with rich traditions, customs and opportunities for storytelling. All these forms of storytelling are valuable. All are equal citizens in the diversity of storytelling.” It is through exposure to this diversity that a rich tapestry of experience is created, which helps the child not only appreciate his/her own cultural heritage but the heritage of others as well.

During the International Year of the Family, the United Nations Secretariat and World Conference of Cities and Corporations honoured The Virtues Project as a model global program for families of all cultures. The Virtues Project (Kavelin-Popov L, Popov, D,  Kavelin J, 1997) shares that, “qualities of character and the simple elements of spirituality are honored by all cultures and sacred traditions. All cultures honour virtues such as courage, love, honesty, loyalty, excellence and service, yet they apply them differently according to their own diverse value systems.”

Culturally, storytelling is the preferred sense-making currency of human relationships (Boje 1991). It is how we relate to each other, how we build rapport and develop empathy. Good stories assist in the development of an ethical value system.

Stories can bond people from diverse backgrounds, “help forge group identities and create a sense of common culture and understanding” (Fredericks & Cox).

Stories are effective in increasing tolerance and understanding of people from other cultures. Story telling can promote social competence by showing young people which qualities cause relationships to thrive and which actions sow distrust and discord (Linda Fredericks, forthcoming).

Listening to a good night story is a pathway to peace. Diverse cultures recognise storytelling as a medium for sharing important information about living as an individual and feeling connected to your family, the community, the environment and the divine (Fredericks & Cox).

Looking forward

Mohandas Gandhi said, “If we are to teach real peace in the world, we shall have to begin with the children.”

For the person who bestows a good night story on a child, know that you can have a profoundly positive effect. The stories children listen to in their childhood, stay in their hearts and minds through to adulthood and influence the way they think about themselves and interact in the world. In the words of master storyteller Charles Dickens, “A loving heart is the truest wisdom.”

Treasure a child by telling them a good night story, every night.

Photo credit: Josh Dubya

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