Welcome! If you are new to the Lion's Whiskers blog ...

Showing posts with label storytelling. Show all posts
Showing posts with label storytelling. Show all posts

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Prototype of Courage

Here's another reason why sharing stories that illustrate all six types of courage with your kids may be a very constructive project.  As children develop and acquire language, they are actively engaged in concept formation (which of course began in infancy).  What is "dog" or "chair" or "jumping" or "soft"?  These are all concepts that are learned through exposure to a wide variety of examples.  Each exposure helps the child refine the prototype, the essence or ideal, if you will, of "dog" "chair" "jumping" and "soft" based on what is common among all the examples of the concept.  

It works like this:  If a child has experience of many different sorts of dogs, her prototype of the concept "dog" may end up as something of medium stature, with an affectionate nature and an appetite for long walks - something like a Labrador retriever (not surprisingly one of the most popular of breeds.)   Generic or stylized signs for dogs generally show an animal of medium stature and average proportions, rather than a wasp-waisted whippet or a low-slung Basset hound.  If the child sees primarily Chihuahuas and Yorkshire terriers, her prototype might be something decidedly smaller, more nervous, and more inclined to sit on laps than your average Labrador.   (I am reminded of an anecdote I heard recently about a young boy whose mother was a lawyer with many women attorneys in her social set; the son disdained the idea of practicing law as a career since it was something "only girls do.")

If children form a prototype of the concept "courage" based on a narrow range of examples (e.g. only police officers or soldiers or firefighters) might they find it harder to recognize other types of courage in themselves or others? I can't find any academic studies supporting this, but it would certainly be an interesting investigation.

As I wrote earlier in a post on more evidence on the power of stories, researchers find more sophisticated "theory of mind" in children who listen to or read a lot of stories.  Theory of mind is the ability to imagine what might be going on in another person's head.   Some researchers contend that theory of mind may be critical to forming certain concepts.  For an abstract concept such as "courage" it may be necessary for a child to imagine the mental states of different people undergoing challenges.   In other words, theory of mind may allow a child to infer that a given situation is frightening or difficult for another person, and thus allow additional material for forming the prototype of "courage."

A recent article in Psychology Today also proposes that imagining other people's choices clarifies our own.  When faced with a choice we have never had to make before, we summon our mental prototype of a person who would made that choice.  If that prototype is something we aspire to (i.e. courageous action), we may make the choice in a way that matches the prototype.  Much as many Evangelical Christians use the motto, "What would Jesus do?"to guide their decisions, we prompt ourselves to conform to a standard that we wish to match.  If we have allowed ourselves and our children to form a prototype that encompasses all six types of courage, can we hope that we will be better able to rise to the challenge when it meets us on the path, in whatever form it takes?  If courage resides in the hearts of such diverse heroes as Horatio, Br'er Rabbit, and Lady Godiva, the prototype of courage our children take with them through their lives may be as nuanced as our complex world requires.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

More Evidence On the Power of Stories

A recent article in the New York Times, "The Neuroscience of Your Brain on Fiction" cited current research on what happens when we read (or listen to) fictional narratives. You may recall I wrote an article back in December in a similar vein, This Is your Brain on Stories.  Again, it has been shown through fMRI scanning that reading words associated with sensory or motor activities stimulates not just the regions in the brain that are related to language processing, but to the specific sensory or motor activities being referenced. Stories thus act as simulations of activities or events, giving us the chance to live an experience we haven't yet had. Scientists also speculate that lots of experience with fiction, with its rich metaphors and descriptions and exploration of character's thoughts and emotions, helps to develop "theory of mind." This is what helps us imagine what might be going on in someone else's head, and gives us clues about how to proceed in social interactions.

The article does specifically mention how this affects children:

Friday, March 23, 2012

Does This Taste Funny to You?

Not long ago I wrote about the giddy pleasures of the tall-tale form in the wildly exaggerated physical courage of Pecos Bill. Today I want to say just a few words more about the trusty shield of cream pie to the face.

According to research cited in the New York Times, laughter produces endorphins. The physical act of laughing, like any vigorous exercise, triggers the release of this "feel-good" chemical in the brain. It just plain feels good to laugh. We relax, we find new friendships through humor, we lower our guard. In fact, the growing international movement known as "laughter yoga" is taking this powerful tool into schools, workplaces, leadership seminars, and community organizations all over the world as a way of combating stress and raising productivity. There doesn't even have to be a joke - it's not an intellectual process where we find something funny, and then we laugh. Just laughing (fake, forced laughing sustained for a few minutes) will lead to genuine laughter. You know you've succumbed to giggling fits, laughing for no reason until tears run down your face. Rather than a silly thing to do, it's actually a powerful tool for promoting well-being.

Now consider what happens with fear and stress. The chemicals released by the brain under the influence of fear and stress are adrenaline and cortisol. These are the life-saving fight-or-flight hormones that prepare us to snatch children from the path of oncoming cars or withstand pain during emergencies. All our defenses are on high-alert, and when running away from a tiger, that's a good thing. But chronic exposure, especially to cortisol, from daily stress and anxiety can have serious adverse effects on the body and on cognitive function.

Monday, February 6, 2012

On Stories, Narrative and Storytelling

This again is from Bruce Jackson's wonderful The Story is True: The Art and Meaning of Telling Stories, and speaks to our human urge to reframe our experiences into coherent narratives so that we can understand what happens to us and around us:

"When we can't figure out the plot in real life, people say, 'It's senseless, just senseless.' And that may be true; it may be senseless. Sense is a product of our intelligence, not a condition of the world. But few of us are satisfied with 'it's senseless' as an explanation. We want bottom lines. We want villains and conspiracies and plots like those in movies and novels; we want to live in a causal universe, a universe in which things make sense."

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

About Stories

From a wonderful book called The Story is True: The Art and Meaning of Telling Stories, by Bruce Jackson. It says so elegantly what we've said before in Sharing Family Stories and other posts.

"In time, how we tell our story depends not so much on what happened then, but on what we know of the world now. And that is why the story of that time told at this moment means at least as much, and perhaps more, about this world now than that time then. And that is why these stories we tell again and again remain forever new."

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Stories with Eleanor, Part 2

Last week I had coffee with my friend, Eleanor Stanton, the associate pastor at the Presbyterian-New England Congregational Church in Saratoga Springs.   We talked about her work with teens in the high school youth group, her pastoral counseling, her experience of cancer, and most of all, her use of stories.  You can find the first part of our conversation here.

Jennifer: I’ve noticed that when you preach, you like to walk around and hold your printed page at your side. Did you have storytelling experience before you became a minister?  What are the mechanics of how you do what you do when you are preaching?  How did you come to that? How did you make that choice?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Talking Stories with Eleanor, Part 1

Last week I had coffee with my friend, Eleanor Stanton, the associate pastor at the Presbyterian- New England Congregational Church in Saratoga Springs.  She talked about stories, working with teens, about being a minister, about having cancer, and about being a minister with cancer.  Throughout our conversation were implicit and explicit observations about courage.   This is the first of two installments of that interview.

Jennifer: So, I have some questions for you about courage and about story. Let’s start with this. If somebody came to church on Sunday, somebody new in town, and there you are, you’re wearing your collar, your robe, and you have no hair. So they may quickly make certain assumptions about both your story, and your courage –

Eleanor:  I thought you were going to say, my orientation!

Jennifer:   Ha! No!  So whether their assumptions are correct or not, odds are that they are going to be making them. What’s your response to just the fact that that happens? That whereas somebody else may not present a whole lot of clues, for example –

Thursday, December 15, 2011

This Is Your Brain on Stories

I’ve offered a lot of traditional stories on Lion’s Whiskers over the last several months. How many of you are telling them to your kids? Maybe not a lot of you, and that’s okay! But I hope you have gathered something from these stories. What I hope you have picked up on is this: around the world, in every culture, people have been telling stories not simply for entertainment, but for creating metaphors for understanding their world. I also hope I can persuade you that some form of storytelling – whether with traditional narratives or your own “When I was a kid” yarns – can be a powerful parenting tool, and may help your kids to develop the six types of courage.

I've shared a lot of my own anecdotal observations about the power of storytelling, and posted lots of inspiring quotations about the role of stories in our lives. What’s fascinating and exciting is that cutting-edge brain science is beginning to back up the wisdom of the ages. Researchers from many disciplines are using fMRI brain scanning to investigate what actually happens in our brains when we listen to stories. The fields of advertising and journalism have always known how to harness the power of stories; but that power is now part of medical education and law schools, in tax compliance and political discourse, as part of proposed Alzheimer’s treatments, and part of the on-going discussion concerning whether an understanding of narrative can help explain wartime behaviors. Even the defense department is studying whether narrative approaches can help create military leaders with more moral courage.

I want to very briefly (as a layperson, children’s author, and researcher on the importance of story-telling in our culture) summarize some of the findings.

Monday, November 28, 2011

A few quotations on the power of stories

Whether you tell traditional stories, share your childhood escapades with your kids, narrate the day's events or make up stories on the spot - grab the power of storytelling for your parenting toolkit!

Here's a little bit of food for thought:

"Great stories teach you something. That's one reason I haven't slipped into some kind of retirement: I always feel like I'm learning something new." ~ Clint Eastwood

"The process of putting your life into order with a beginning, middle, and end forces you to see cause and effect." Cahtherine Burns, artistic director, The Moth

"Over the years I have become convinced that we learn best - and change - from hearing stories that strike a chord within us... Those in leadership positions who do not grasp or use the power of stories risk failure for their companies and for themselves." ~ John Kotter, Harvard Business School

“The Conceptual Age can remind us what has always been true but has rarely been acted upon – that we must listen to each other’s stories and that we are each the authors of our own lives… we are our stories.“ Daniel Pink, A Whole New Mind

Monday, November 21, 2011

About Stories

"The protagonist of folk tale is always, and intensely, a young person moving through ordeals into adult life. When adult state and a suitable partner is achieved the tale is over. Adults as such are of no interest - they exist only as helpers, enemies, or rivals of the protagonist. And this is why there are no wicked stepchildren in the tales. Stepmothers' feelings and problems are of no account - they are grown-ups and can work it out for themselves."

~ Jill Paton Walsh

Monday, October 24, 2011

About Stories

"We construct a narrative for ourselves, and that's the thread that we follow from one day to the next. People who disintegrate as personalities are the ones who lose that thread."

~ Paul Auster

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Sea of Stories

Haroun and the Sea of Stories“Iff explained that these were the Streams of Story, that each coloured strand represented and contained a single tale. Different parts of the Ocean contained different sorts of stories, and as all the stories that had ever been told and many that were still in the process of being invented could be found here, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was in fact the biggest library in the universe. And because the stories were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories and so become yet other stories; so that unlike a library of books, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was much more than a storeroom of yarns. It was not dead, but alive.” Salman Rushdie, Haroun and the Sea of Stories

I confess to being a huge Rushdie fan, not so much because of his work (although Midnight’s Children is arguably one of the greatest novels of world literature), but because I have heard him speak – about stories, and about the experience of being in fear for his life because of storytelling. For those of you too young to recall, Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses, brought down the wrath of the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran with a fatwa, a sentence of death, in 1989. In short, the Ayatollah said that his followers had an obligation to execute Rushdie. There was a huge international outcry that continued for years; nevertheless, Rushdie was forced into hiding for several years, truly in mortal danger while violence and book burnings erupted around the world. It was appalling.
WWII poster protesting Nazi book burnings
His first book after this experience was Haroun and the Sea of Stories, a fantastical riff on the 1,001 Arabian Nights which he wrote, he said, partly to explain to his son what had happened to him. The control of stories and storytelling is one of the first things on every dictator’s to-do list; can there be any better evidence about the power that stories have? As the tyrant in Haroun complains, inside every story is a world that he can’t control.
Authoritarian regimes fear the independence of thought and action that stories encourage. In my role as the Lovely K.’s personal bard, I must always be on the lookout for my own motives in choosing or not choosing a story for her. If I pass over a story because I’m afraid it will “give her ideas,” then I probably should go back and tell that story without delay! As a parent I am a one-person authoritarian regime, but if I must be a dictator then I can at least strive to be an enlightened and benevolent one. After all, independence of thought and action is what I’m trying to teach my daughter. Isn’t that what we mean by courage?

Monday, October 3, 2011

About Stories

"To be human is to be a storyteller. A computer can tell us how many words are in a story, correct some spelling errors, and execute other mechanical tasks -- but it doesn't have a clue to what the story is about. Conversely, although children will miscount the words and miss many spelling errors, they can easily tell us the gist of the story - and even imaginatively recount the story in their own words."

~ Barbara K. Walker, The Art of the Turkish Tale

Monday, September 26, 2011

About Stories

"There is a certain embarrassment about being a storyteller in these times when stories are considered not quite as satisfying as statements and statements not quite as satisfying as statistics; but in the long run, a people is known, not by its statements or its statistics, but by the stories it tells."

                                                      ~ Flannery O'Connor

Monday, September 12, 2011

About Stories

"Life and growing involve meeting one's own fears and doubts, so children should be nurtured to have a belief in themselves. The traditional quest-myth story in which they can identify with its hero or heroine in all the difficulties, dangers, and triumphs of the quest has still much to offer. Myths are primal acts of imagination that allow children to experience realities without being demoralized by them. Myths give children the courage to handle trauma and pain and difficulty and to retain their sense of wonder and value, and, even more, to find their lives significant."

~ Pat O'Shea

Thursday, September 1, 2011

On a Journey

"All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town." - Leo Tolstoy

Lisa and I were talking about Steven Spielberg, and that had me thinking about how this great modern storyteller’s work fits Tolstoy’s observation. Stories are about our encounter with the unfamiliar. Either we have gone on a journey and find the unfamiliar along the way, or the unfamiliar comes and finds us where we live, even if we just wanted to stay home and have a cup of coffee. Consider two of Spielberg’s many great films: Jaws, and Schindler’s List.

Monday, August 22, 2011

About Stories

"[Stories] serve as mirrors in which a group of people can see themselves. More specifically and more often, they are like those mirrors in which we apply make up or even disguises, designing images of who we think we are, how we believe we should appear to the world, and how we think we should perform in it."

David Leeming and Jake Page, Myths, Legends and Folktales of America

Monday, August 15, 2011

About Stories

"[The] prevalent parental belief is that a child must be diverted from what troubles him most, his formless, nameless anxieties, and his chaotic, angry, and even violent fantasies. Many parents believe that only conscious reality or pleasant and wish-fulfilling images should be presented to the child - that he should be exposed only to the sunny side of things. But such one-sided fare nourishes the mind only in a one-sided way, and real life is not all sunny."

~ Bruno Bettelheim

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Children's Room

For the most part, if you want to find fairy tales and folk tales and myths and legends, if you want to use enchantment, you must go to the children’s room of the library, or the children’s section of the bookstore. This has created the false impression that these stories are intended only for children. It wasn’t always that way.

In the generations before blogs, before video on demand, before t.v., before radio, before books, even, entertainment in the form of oral storytelling was just about the only game in town. For all the centuries before the industrial age, labor meant repetitive tasks over many tedious hours, hours that were relieved by telling stories. Spinning and weaving, for example, are sedentary and monotonous, and played such a huge role in the tradition of storytelling that spinning a yarn and weaving a tale are now synonymous with the art of the story. We fabricate our own stories or follow the thread of someone else’s adventures. Text and textile both come from the same Latin word, texere, to weave. Everyone shared the stories while they worked, young and old, even when it was R-rated and even X-rated -- I suspect covering the children's ears happened sometimes, but not always!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Rightful Heir

Does every child experience doubts about his or her parents? As in, “I wonder if they are really my parents? Who am I, really?” It’s very common (according to Dr. Lisa, and especially if there is an older sibling who has planted a few seeds of doubt!) for children to suspect that they have somehow been switched at birth and ended up in the wrong family. We may share our children's birth stories with them, but working against them we have many many stories throughout history that speak of doubt, in the form of “foundling” stories or stories of abandoned children who achieved greatness.