The Power of Stories: In Difficult Times, Storytelling Offers Respite…and Delight!

From "once upon a time" and consistently until today, stories have served humankind well in difficult times. They teach us, amuse us, and distract us when quotidian affairs become overwhelming. Currently, the internet is exploding with resources to help students learn while schools are temporarily closed, but the best resource could lie within us: our stories, those we tell our children, and the stories they have to tell us.

And the best thing about stories? There is no assembly required.

Child psychiatrist Robert Coles argues that people’s stories speak for themselves. A medical doctor who taught literature at Harvard University, Coles believes that the sturdiest moral lessons are acquired through stories—both oral and written.

"The whole point of stories," he observes, "is not 'solutions' or 'resolutions' but a broadening and even a heightening of our struggles. The beauty of a story is in its openness—the way you or I can take it in, and use it for ourselves." Stories embody "the moral contradictions and inconsistencies in our personal lives," and help us to decipher the barrage of information that threatens to overwhelm us.

Many multigenerational families are taking refuge together. This is an ideal time for sharing the stories that, too busy or engrossed in our digital devices, until now we have been unable to tell. Describe what it was like when you were a kid, when you got into trouble, when you were scared. Pull out old photo albums and show your little ones pictures from when you were a child. Pictures prompt stories.

Carol Jago, age 5, dressed for her dance recital, “On the Good Ship Lollypop”

Let us also make this a time for listening. In his extensive interviews with children, Robert Coles always withholds judgment or commentary, believing that we learn the most by listening without presuppositions or theories, by simply offering an open ear. Coles sometimes prompts children with questions, recording their responses—easy to do on your phone—and then asks them to illustrate their stories. Of his book The Spiritual Life of Children, Coles has said, “This book is my story of the stories the children kindly gave me.”

These are extraordinary days, weeks, or months of confinement. They could become treasured times with our children. Keeping up with schoolwork is good. Sharing the stories that shape us is even better.

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Blog contributor Carol Jago is an author on the HMH Into Reading and HMH Into Literature programs.

To help you continue teaching and learning during the current outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19), visit our At-Home Learning Support page for free resources.