Continuing the series on books, reading and children, I thought the next post should be on the role of stories in a child’s life. The first part about the magic room in my grandparents’ house, can be read here.
The secret of making children listen to stories is to start early. Don’t wait till you think they are old enough to understand them. Because by that time, they have seen stories and films on TV and other visual media and have turned sort of cynical, questioning the logic behind a talking sparrow or quarrelsome tiger. One can start as early as a year or less.
Remember the stories of the crows, sparrows, foxes and monkeys and moon that mothers and grandmother told little children while feeding them? Well, that is the beginning of storytelling. The first stories were always those of the animals and birds and nature around them. And these assumed friendly and identifiable forms to make them attractive to children. So the moon became chanda mama, the sparrow became chimni tai or kuruvi akka, the cat billi mausi, the bear bhalu mama and so on.
The moon was invited to come and eat a bite along with the child. Even the crow got invited and a pretend spoonful of food was given to the moon or the crow, and the leftover food was thrown to the street mongrel. I think this was a wonderful way of making children learn sharing of food and happy times with fellow creatures.
The stories slowly became more complicated as the children grew, with simple values and morals thrown in. Hard work, telling the truth, helping others, friendship and such were fed along with the food. The ways of the world including cunning, slyness, betrayal and other negative emotions were also woven into simple tales to prepare the children to face the world.
In the light of all the above, I disagree with the reasoning behind not distracting children while feeding them.
While stories have to be part of every child’s life, listening to them preferably from a loved one makes them more memorable. One need not be a great storyteller to grab the attention of a child. Here is the secret which many parents might not know: There is an innate storyteller in every parent just as there is a superhero in each child, waiting to come out!
I remember the L&M spinning stories for the boys when they were small. They invariably were little heroes in those tales, rescuing other children or old and helpless people from sundry wild beasts, bad men or monsters, fighting with and driving them away. And always, but always being thanked by those rescued for saving them! You should have seen the expression of pure accomplishment and satisfaction in those little faces as they became the imaginary heroes.
My children also had the privilege of having storytellers in their grandparents – one on each side – my mother-in-law and my father. They each had their own style of telling tales. My older one was a born bookworm. I used to buy him books – the plastic coated board books when he was barely able to sit and he began ‘reading’ comics even before starting playschool. He would make his grandmother tell the stories based on his liking for the illustrations. For instance, he would demand the story where the monkey was pointing a finger at a tree! His poor grandmother would have to then frantically search for the particular picture in the particular comic and then tell him the story. Her travails didn’t end there. She had to remember exactly what she had told on the previous occasion. If she changed the story even a little, he would catch her at it and demand that she tell the story the same way she had earlier!
My father must have had storytelling genes in him and with his retirement, he found his vocation. I remember how during family gatherings when the kids turned too boisterous and hard to manage, all one had to do was shout, ‘Thatha is going to tell a story!’ and within no time, every one of them would have trooped in to surround him and hang on his every word. We grateful mothers and others would keep him supplied with coffee and hot water to soothe his throat! Poor father had to plead with them in order to even take a break to stretch his legs! It was also easy to feed the gang because they would eat anything that was served without a fuss as they listened to the stories!
He didn’t tell the stories of Ram and Krishna or Hanuman, the eternal favourite of kids, in a staid manner. When the vanar sena began building the bridge to go to Lanka, they played catch with the big trees and boulders and stopped for refreshments – of samosas and vadas. (Here I must mention that the aromas emanating from the kitchen made him add those goodies to the tales he was spinning. So it was natural for Krishna to munch on murukku and Hanuman to lap up badam halwa! )
Families often have their own special stories. Some might be traditional, others made up by a member of the family long long ago and then passed down the generations.
I remember the story of the unni – a tiny mite that torments a traveler relaxing under a tree, by spitting the stones of the fruits it ate on his head! It effectively frustrates all his attempts to kill it telling him how it managed to survive every time. I think this is a special story of my family. Correct me if I am wrong.
Now if you go by logic, there is none, (how can a tiny mite eat big fruits and spit the stones?) nor is there a moral to it but is there a rule that all stories need to have logic and moral behind them? What I like about these traditional and family stories is that story is repeated from the start with the addition of a new incident with every step, which helps imprint the story in the little minds of the children. The other story I remember is the one where the fly forgets its name and goes from one animal to another, and sometimes even inanimate things like a stick or grass, to find out what his name was!
I think I have made it fairly clear that it is very important to first begin telling the story to a child. Do it either with or without a book, instead of reading from it. If you are doing it with a book, the child can look at the pictures as he listens to the story and might soon begin telling it himself.
Telling the stories also makes them more interactive and gives imagination a free rein. For instance, when you are telling a story, any story, you can ask the child, ‘….what did the monkey do then?’ Usually the child will have an answer. Sometimes, she will say, ‘You tell me!’ and then you respond, ‘No, you tell me what it did!’ She would then think and come up with her idea. But be prepared for her begin to cry asking you to tell her. Don’t fret. Just smile and continue with the story. This is not some regular tantrum because she might just be impatient to hear the rest of the story and so you can give in. This works for older children, of say three or four years. This is also the time a child begins enjoying being read to or trying to read the story by herself.
‘But I have no time to tell stories,’ you say? Well, there is no need to sit down and tell a story. Make them up as you go through the day. My dear blogger friend R’s Mom will agree with me. She has a whole collection of such tales which she spins for her little one even as she rushes through her daily routine, including holding down a full time job! She has spun stories around such mundane things like How the bhindi got its crown, The teeth that told a story, The crying girl!
It is the personal touch that makes the big difference in terms of creating memories. The comments on the previous post justifies the theory that while we remember the books we read as children, we remember the stories we heard from our near and dear ones in our early childhood even better.
A word of warning: There is no guarantee that a child will pick up a book just by virtue of listening to stories. Many parents, especially those who are readers themselves are frustrated when the children don’t do it. Even if they do look at picture books and read, they might not do it regularly or turn into avid book lovers. The other day my niece, with two boys, one of whom is a teen, surprised me pleasantly when she told me that she still had all the books I used to give her when she was growing up. Though she kept egging them on with those and others she bought, she was frustrated because neither of the boys was showing any indication of becoming a book lover.
Be patient. They might not become instant and avid readers; they might do it at their own pace or even give it up temporarily due to pressures of studies, work and other commitments. But eventually, they will turn back to the comfort of books. Books have that kind of hold over one’s mind, even reluctant ones. Trust me.
So. create some magic moments for your child–tell them stories!
Do you agree that stories are important in a child’s life? Could you also share the special family stories if there were any?
(Homepage image courtesy: http://www.reachoutandread.org)