My 4-year-old son isn’t always great at rolling with the punches. When he’s angry about something that didn’t go the way he wanted or expected, his fair little face turns bright brink. He knits his eyebrows together in a furrow and glares through his glasses, making what he calls his “cross” face—one of the many Britishisms he’s picked up from Thomas the Tank Engine.
My son’s sensitivity is nothing new, but one of our most effective strategies in handling an impending blow-up is new. On a trip to story time at the library with him, we heard a book about Pete the Cat, a laid-back, groovin’ dude. In his story I Love My White Shoes, Pete is walking down the street wearing brand new shoes, singing a song. As he steps in different things, like blueberries, strawberries and mud, his shoes get dirty and change colors. But does Pete care? Nope. He just keeps going along, singing his song.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve used that story to remind my son to relax when something goes wrong. You can’t always just tell a 4-year-old to “calm down” and expect magic to happen. But when I say, “Remember what Pete the Cat does when something goes wrong? Can you show me how you do that?”, suddenly he gets it.
How Stories Affect the Brain
My son’s response to stories is not unique. Stories connect powerfully with people of all ages, and it’s not just a fluke.
Research in the field of neuroscience shows that stories have the power to stimulate the brain and even influence the way we act. A compelling narrative and vivid language activate more than just the language-processing areas of the brain. They also activate areas of the brain not usually used for processing language. For instance, an evocative description may activate the parts of the brain that process sensory experience, rather than words.
So the bottom line is, the brain doesn’t see much difference between hearing a story about something and experiencing it in real life. Pretty cool, huh?
(MORE: 4 Myths About Raising Readers)
How Stories Benefit Kids
Fiction and storytelling don’t always get taken seriously. At worst, fiction may seem like a frivolous source of entertainment. At best, a convenient way to teach kids to read. But because as humans we seem to be hard-wired to hear, tell, and respond to stories, they have valuable benefits for kids.
1. Stories help kids cope with feelings
An article on the Parenting and Child Health network’s website says, when you read a story that has emotions in it, your child learns to accept his own feelings and understand how others feel as well.
2. Stories help kids deal with fears
Hearing stories about their fears may help kids banish their fears. For instance, the story Blaze the Dragon Banishes the Bumps in the Night can help kids learn to handle bedtime fears.
3. Stories build self esteem
Research shows that kids who hear family stories grow up to have higher self esteem and lower rates of depression and anxiety.
4. Stories persuade
Because hearing stories activates many areas of the brain, they are powerful persuasion tools. When you tell a story, you can activate the same areas in someone else’s head. According to Princeton researcher Uri Hasson, stories are the only way to plant ideas in someone else’s mind. Just like we did with Pete the Cat and my son.