Everyone has a story - and kids love hearing these family tales. Funny mishaps when they were younger (they love being the star character), how their parents met, the naughty things you got up to at their age and what you did in the ‘olden days’, these are the stories your children never tire of hearing.
So why do children enjoy the telling - and retelling - of these stories so much?
“Children are naturally self centred so any story featuring themselves will have an extra attraction. Hearing about family members being younger and getting into adventures, or living at a time when things were different can stir the imagination and the contrast between the grown up and the story of the child can amaze and surprise,” says psychologist and parenting expert Claire Halsey.
Paul Jackson, director of the Society for Storytelling agrees: “Personal stories are very powerful and can pull families together. The listener has a personal connection to these reminiscences. Even just asking ‘do you remember when?’ can trigger images and memories and a deep emotional response.”
But these familiar stories are also important in your child’s development and their sense of self. There have been psychological studies that show the more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believe their families function. In one study children were asked questions including: Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mum and dad went to school? Do you know where your parents met? Do you know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of your birth?. This “Do You Know?” scale of 20 questions turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.
“Our identity is strongly tied to our family and its history; not only where we’ve come from but the family characteristics such as adventure, courage, creativity and even the jobs or achievements of family members,” explains Claire Halsey, co-author of Your Child Year by Year. “Family story telling reinforces those family characteristics and establishes the connection between generations in even the simplest way when, in a story, a child is told of characteristics they share with a parent or other relative.
“The sense of a shared past, common experiences and characteristics can be powerfully reinforced in family history or story telling. Differences can be celebrated too and become integrated into the family identity. Stories also constitute family traditions and family rituals, when you re tell stories at celebrations or festive times of year.”
Jonathan Douglas, director of the National Literacy Trust, says: “All families have stories to tell and all children love to hear them.
“The stories children read in books help them to become part of other people’s worlds but the stories they hear from their family help them to understand their own world, who they are, where they come from and where they might want to go. The stories of our childhood shape the people we become and the world we create.
“Sharing stories as a family will boost your child’s emotional development, as well as bringing them enjoyment and giving them inspiration. What’s more, storytelling will also help to strengthen your relationship with your child, and we know that this foundation helps children develop the resilience and confidence they need to succeed later in life.”
Linda Blair, a clinical psychologist and Telegraph columnist, says children aged seven and under are particularly validated by these family stories. “In those early years children are working on establishing and trying to understand their identities. Stories about themselves and their families help them feel safe, help them belong and clarify who they are.”
As a parent, all you need is time and willingness to recall these stories. Not only will the content of your stories enable your child to feel grounded and confident, but the sheer act of sitting close together, laughing and talking, will deepen your bond with your child.
Jonathan Douglas, director of the National Literacy Trust, has these top tips for parents to encourage family storytelling:
- It’s never too early to share family stories. Research shows that by the age of five, children in ‘word poor’ households have heard nearly 30 million fewer words than their peers and this holds them back when they start school. What’s more, teenagers in families who regularly talk about their history have higher self-esteem, stronger self-concepts, better coping skills and are more resilient.
- All families have traditions and a story to tell about them! If your traditions are steeped in history, encourage your child to do some research and find out everything they can. Also get your child to speak as many different family members as possible about the traditions, from grandparents to aunties, uncles and cousins.
- Create a family memory box and fill it with objects and images that remind you of key events and moments. Whenever you open the box, use the objects to prompt the retelling a family memory.
- If your child is going through a difficult situation which you can relate to, don’t be afraid to share your experience with them. Family storytelling enables children to learn about powerful emotions and cope with life’s challenges in a safe environment.
One word of warning though. Linda Blair counsels that in your child’s teenage years they may be less of an eager sponge for family tales. “At that age they are more interested in ‘who am I?’ in relation to their peers. That’s when they roll their eyes and want you to please stop.” So get your family stories in when you have the chance!
Here, parents share the stories their children love to hear again and again.
“My children love the re-telling of how the youngest’s first combined pair of words were ‘Get out’ (with a tragic elongated stress on the vowels) because she was so sick of being ignored in her high chair in favour of her toddler sister.” Emma
“My kids like to hear my mum tell stories of naughty things I did as a child, like when I turned the garden hose on the top deck of a tour bus going past our house or when I bit her hand to get her attention!” Olivia
“My favourite story is about my late Granny’s dog, Griswald, who used to get the bus into Norwich by himself. He was a golden retriever and all the bus drivers would recognise him and let him on the bus, saying ‘Morning, Griswald’. He’d get off in Norwich city centre, walk around for a bit and get the bus home. I imagine the story was hugely exaggerated but it’s been retold so many times by different family members that it’s become true.” Claudia
“My son loves to hear stories about naughty things the family got up to as kids – my dad and his friend managed to make nitroglycerine in the school science lab and a fireman had to very gingerly take it out to the football pitch and toss something at it to get it to explode safely. This story has been retold many times, and my son just related it to his Y7 science teacher as they were discussing dangerous chemicals!” Jo
“My son loves the one about when he painted his baby sister’s bald head pink with a highlighter pen, to match her clothes.” Fiona