A Storied Childhood – The Role of Stories in Children’s Social and Emotional Development
– Dr. Seuss1
“What are you guys up to?” I say to the three six-year-old friends in my living room. “We’re sharing our books!” one says with an “Isn’t it obvious?” tone. Reading is a top priority in the early elementary school years with some states enforcing a reading guarantee (“All kids will read with proficiency by the third grade.”). And so at times it feels, the pressure is on. “Mama, I feel with my whole body that I won’t learn to read,” E said to me at age five. Yet, we have read together since the days when he was swimming in amniotic fluid. “Oh, the Places You Will Go!” was our favorite. We have books in every room of the house. We’ve read several books together every day of his life. But he has a mounting anxiety around learning to read. Perhaps because it is so much a part of our lives, he feels the importance of reading. But also, I suspect that school is pushing hard to make sure he hurries his learning pace. He’s not alone. A worried mother recently confided in me, “I’ve had my son going to a tutor all summer because I’m told he has to read by the time he starts first grade!”
Yes, learning to read is certainly important but how children learn to read is just as important. Consider that no other single experience brings us into other people’s lives and simultaneously holds up a mirror to our own in the way that a book does. Stories are fundamentally tied to our self-identity and empathy for and understanding of others.
Through the imaginative process that reading involves, children have the
opportunity to do what they often cannot do in real life—become thoroughly
involved in the inner lives of others, better understand them, and eventually
become more aware of themselves.
writes Dr. Zipora Shechtman in her book, Treating Child and Adolescent Aggression Through Bibilotherapy.2 Books allow us to venture far from home and experience trials that threaten to annihilate us and the world we live in and yet, persevere through our alter-ego protagonist.
The forces of good and evil battle it out daily after school in our living room. I watch as, time and again, my now seven-year-old son recreates and reinvents stories with his beloved Star Wars characters and his favorite plot lines. Stories play a central role in the formation of children’s moral development. Readers follow a protagonist through epic journeys and cringe as they are injured or fail in their pursuits. But, in children’s books, the protagonist never gives up. Most often on the side of what is right and good, poetic justice reigns and in the end, evil is overcome.
We empathize with complex characters who are required to make choices in the midst of uncertain times and circumstances. In the best literature, questions are asked and left unanswered for the thoughtful reader to consider. “Why did she leave her family? Was it the right thing to do?” This “meaning making” is what brings the rush of joy and connection and desire for more. It fuels our imagination. It expands our minds to think creatively. Our emotional and cognitive intelligence is challenged and we are required to think for ourselves.
By grappling with dilemmas and difficult choices, we form our sense of what we believe is just and also, what defines the dark side. We are able to become more thoughtful decision-makers through those experiences. In a compelling tale, readers will deeply empathize with the character’s struggle to control his impulses. It’s good for adults and valuable practice for all children who are developing their ability to manage themselves.
In addition, stories allow us to take the perspective of another in a deeply personal way. We read their private thoughts. We understand their values and the back story that shaped them. And we watch as they choose behaviors that either reflect or fight against their beliefs and self-concept. We root for the hero because we become the hero for the time that we are immersed in his story. We come to know and understand other cultures through the vicarious experience of living another’s life.
Story, in other words, continues to fulfill its ancient functioning of binding
society by reinforcing a set of common values and strengthening the ties of
common culture…Story – sacred and profane – is perhaps the main cohering
force in human life.2
Though educators know that there are a combination of exercises, skills and experiences that will develop a reader, no one really knows what precise combination of working on rhyming, phonics, vocabulary and comprehension will bring about proficiency. In fact, it’s different for every learner. But certainly, key ingredients in the success formula must be the connection felt between readers sharing a story and those individuals and the book characters. In other words, fundamental to reading success is a focus on children’s social and emotional development. Parents can worry less about influencing their children’s technical abilities and instead, dive into the shared joy and adventure of reading with their children.
Share oral stories with one another. Use books without words and create stories together. Visit the library and encourage your children to explore subjects and stories that intrigue them. Ask questions about characters and leave them open-ended for discussion. “Why do you think he made that decision?” Predict outcomes. “What do you think will happen next?” Never miss a day of reading with your child. Bedtime is a perfect opportunity to snuggle together and feel the power of story wash over you.
We, as parents, have the opportunity to balance out the pressures that kids often feel at school to learn the mechanics. Our role can be to give them the joy of reading. Doing this together as a family can be the most valuable way to show a child the role story can play in connecting to others and shaping and enriching a life.
1. Seuss, D. (1990) Oh The Places You’ll Go! NY: Random House.
2. Shechtman, Z. (2009). Treating Child and Adolescent Aggression through Bibliotherapy. The Springer Series on Human Exceptionality.
3. Gottschall, J. (2012). The Storytelling Animal; How Stories Make Us Human. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
For other great articles on this topic, check out:
Parents Make Bedtime a Social-Emotional Moment with Your Kids by Maurice Elias and Jennifer Miller
From Committee for Children, Using Children’s Literature to Build Social and Emotional Skills by Trudy Ludwig
Using Literary Characters to Teach Emotional Intelligence by Traci Vogel