Stories are the original edutainment out of which all cultures flow. Before we had TVs, social media, books and formal plays we had stories. Families and communities would gather and listen to stories from elders. They would sing them, set them to music and dance, draw them, and most importantly enact them so that the essential values would be communicated and preserved.
Children Need Tools to Navigate Life
Children like the rest of us need clear points of reference to navigate the world. Without a visible standard, it is hard for children to establish their own moral compass. The media, TV, video games and other external stimuli dominate their minds and create a narrative of conflict and violence. The concept of being safe seems foreign as does acceptance of those who appear different. Educators and others alike who are dedicated to nurturing character development must be able to provide tools for children in order to create a new social norm.
One way this can be done is through storytelling.
Storytelling as Moral Guides
Stories have the power to change the world. Equally important – the stories we choose to tell and how we choose to tell them determines the course of civilization. There’s a Cherokee Wisdom Story:
A child went to his grandfather to ask why there was so much fighting in the world. The old man looked down at the boy.
“My child, two wolves are constantly battling in our minds. One is good and wishes no harm to anyone. The other is full of anger, and ready to fight with everyone.”
“But Grandfather, which one wins?” the child asked.
“The one we feed.”
Using multi-cultural wisdom stories such as our “Stories to Light Our Way,” Wisdom Thinkers provides educators, parents and children with a steady diet for cultivating that “good wolf” within themselves.
Snappy the Turtle Who Couldn’t Keep His Mouth Shut
Stories come with their own language. They provide images concepts/behaviors that allows us to see and express our own ideas thus, creating an ease of application and internalization. An example of this is the story of Snappy.
As the story goes, Snappy was a turtle who had a hard time controlling his anger – and himself. He was constantly snapping at everyone around him. This was until he became best friends with a pair of beautiful swans that had landed in his pond. They became inseparable.
But one summer when the heat became overwhelming the pond began to dry up, and everyone left. Snappy, in distress about what to do, convinced the swans to take him along – they were to hold the ends of a long stick and Snappy would clamp down in the middle and be carried along. All seemed to go well with this plan until people upon seeing the “flying turtle” began to tease him. Unable to control his anger, Snappy snapped back at them, lost his grip and fell.
When we shared this story with students from pre-K and up, they had all kinds of ideas to help Snappy maintain his self-control. There were follow-up activities like drawing sticks and placing them around the classroom. This served as a reminder for them to “hold onto” good character traits like self-control, kindness, love and patience. This gave them the opportunity to not only internalize good behavior but engage in a class culture that actualized the importance of self-control.
Years later, a principal told me about one of his students who was referred to the office for an altercation. When asked why he behaved the way he did he stated, “I’m sorry. I guess I just couldn’t hold onto to my stick.” In this scenario, we see that the story of Snappy was actualized within the student. It seems to be much easier for the student to admit his fault this way than, saying “I lost my temper.”
Another principal found another route. When he discovered that one of his students was having difficulty with self-control, forgiveness and sharing, he came up with a strategy to help him improve in those areas. First he had the child read the story of Snappy encouraging him to place himself within it. Then the student drew the character and/or scene in the most meaningful way to him. Next the artwork was scanned and taped to the student’s desk so he could be reminded of the character traits he wanted to cultivate. Within a month staff noticed a positive change within the student.
Through these stories, we see that children not only begin to self-regulate based on the stories e.g Snappy, but they are able to use other stories to suggest positive behavior to themselves and peers. While the story of Snappy is a small example of helping students set character expectations, other stories alike lend themselves to students to engage in their character development.
Stories and Children with Special Needs
Additionally, over the years we have found that stories have provided neglected groups with astounding ways to engage. Children with special needs are impacted significantly. When engaging with stories, they are able to come out of their shells and relate to the character so they can launch their own stories. Thereby they are able to find their voice, allowing them to feel valued and included.
Stories are important. They have shaped our societies from the beginning of time. Now they have the opportunity to strengthen moral and civic character traits within our children today. Let us embrace and use them.
Ralph Singh is an author, educator, story-teller and community builder. He chairs the Wisdom Thinkers Network and currently consults to develop curricula and resources to bring an understanding of shared values into schools and public life using teachings and wisdom stories from the world’s traditions and cultures. His approach is to create a shared narrative in which each voice is expressed and represented through both traditional and non-traditional stories.