When I think of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books, I often picture the family sitting around the fireplace telling stories. I know their life was hard, but I have a strong sense of the bond the Ingalls family shared from the times they spent singing and sharing stories with each other and with their friends and neighbors. It makes me realize we have lost something important as modern Americans.
With hundreds – if not thousands — of songs, movies and videos at our fingertips through TV and the internet, we no longer look to each other for entertainment. Our plugged-in culture has lost the art of storytelling. We need to get it back.
What is storytelling? It can be anything from creating a fictional tale complete with a fantastic setting and a cast of characters to simply telling your own memories of a life event. What makes stories memorable is what you put into them. The more vivid the details, the more dialogue, and the more description you put into a story, the more interesting the story is.
We make jokes about Grandpa sharing how things were harder back in his day such as the “When I was your age, I had to walk 10 miles to school in the snow” kind of stories, but the fact is, we learn and process much of our identity from family stories. Think about it. When you are with your relatives for Thanksgiving, what do you usually do? You share stories of past Thanksgivings. There is something innately satisfying about going down memory lane on those big occasions. We need to do it more often.
Children especially love hearing stories. We have always read aloud to our kids in my family, but when we travel, I often skip the books and go for an ongoing made-up story starring children who just happen to be their same ages. They love it. The same goes for when I tell them the story of the day he or she was born or how their father and I met. No matter how often they hear these stories, they are eager to hear them again. In fact, they know them so well that they sometimes remind me to add in details I have left out.
Let’s take this a step further. One of the best projects I have done with my children was to research our family tree. We all ended up learning a great deal about their Swedish ancestors and their journey to America. Although their great-grandfather died before they were born, we had access to his words through some of his letters, and we turned them into stories — stories of how their great-great grandfather had to change his name at Ellis Island, stories of a Kansas prairie locust invasion, stories of a family farm lost during the Great Depression. History came alive in a new and exciting way for each of us.
Stories give us a sense of who we are and where we came from. Storytelling gives us our roots. There never was a more important time for us as Americans to reclaim our roots. The good news is there is no right or wrong way to tell a story, and the other good news is that anyone can do it. It just takes some practice. Here are some ideas for how you can revive the art of storytelling in your family.
1. Use special occasions for stories
Taking a cue from the Thanksgiving idea already mentioned, try using holidays and birthdays as a catalyst for storytelling. Birthdays are great. Parents can share their recollections of the day a child was born. Older siblings can tell about the same day from their perspective.
Details can make the day come alive. One of my daughters, for example, enjoys hearing about the fact that she was born during an intense heat wave and that we went to the beach the morning of the day she was born. She knows the weather cooled off just before she made her appearance. One of my sons knows he was born during a wild early spring snowstorm and that we were afraid the midwife wouldn’t make it in time. He knows silly details such as that I gave the midwife my new fuzzy socks to wear while we waited for him to arrive and that I never got the socks back.
In addition to major holidays, anniversaries and birthdays, try storytelling on other important days as well. My kids enjoy hearing about lemonade stands they or their older siblings had on the Fourth of July or about the day we brought home their big tomcat as a tiny kitten, for example. Encourage questions from your “audience” after the storyteller has finished the story. Applause can be a nice touch as well.
2. Create an evening story time
Instead of the usual “how was your day” kind of conversation, spice up family dinnertime with stories. If you are eating a tried-and-true family recipe, for instance, share the story about how you got the recipe or about the first time you cooked it. Another way to get the stories coming is to have a story jar. Simply take a clean jar and fill it with slips of paper that contain story ideas. You can take turns by having a different family member choose from the jar each evening. All ages can participate. If you are pressed for time, you could designate one or two nights a week for the jar.
3. Fill a story jar with ideas
Here are some story ideas for your jar that can be adapted for all ages. The idea is not to just say a sentence or two but to use the idea a starting point for a story about your life. Give the storyteller a few minutes or more to think about the topic and how he or she wants to tell the story.
- My first job
- My favorite car
- My earliest memory
- My favorite pet
- The best Christmas I ever had
- A time I got in trouble for something I didn’t do
- A difficult decision I’ve made
- My favorite song
- The best gift I’ve ever received
- A time I was scared
- The best trip I’ve taken
4. Use storytelling as way to get to know people.
Remember, you never have to reveal anything you don’t want to reveal in a story. You can share only what you want to share. Think about incorporating storytelling into your time spent with other families as well. It’s fun to learn where someone grew up and about details of his or her youth as you are becoming better acquainted. Kids, especially, are intrigued by the similarities and differences that come up when young people of their same age share their memories.
One of the benefits of this process is that the storyteller gains more experience and confidence in public speaking with each story told. When you become accustomed to speaking before an audience – even if it is a small audience – you learn valuable skills in pacing, volume and timing. If you use the story jar, you also are learning impromptu skills that will help you in job interviews and in many work and social settings.
The best reason to tell stories, however, is to learn more about your family and yourself. We all have stories to tell. It’s time to share yours.