family building

What Children Gain When You Open Up: The Power of Story

“Do you have any more stories?” they say.

I’d already told them about how my husband and I met; I’d told them about the first time he said I love you.

(“Why were you at a park at night?” they ask. “Because you can do awesome stuff like that when you’re in college,” I answer.)

So I launched into the story of how he proposed. The table set with two dozen white roses, the private, catered dinner, and the juice boxes to remind us of our first date. The pond and the mountains, the candles and the outdoor sound system playing our song. The one knee and sparkly ring.

The messy, happy, mind-blown “yes!”

“Do you have any more stories?” they say again.

Our eggs are cold. The baby is trying (mostly successfully) to wiggle her way out of her high chair.

It’s time to move on. To trade stories for reminders to rinse their plates.

But for the rest of the day, I can’t stop picturing their riveted little faces. Or how their chests puff up when I talk to them like peers.

I can see myself as a little girl, pencil in hand, telling my dad to talk slower, so I could write his story down.

For the rest of the day, I think of how much I’m really teaching my kids when I simply use my voice.

Colie James Photography

5 Things Our Kids Gain from Story:

1. Roots

With story we share the narratives that weave our lives together, that connect us with family members past and present—and our kids can keep that family identity forever.

2. Grit

Studies have found that telling children about challenges your family has faced will help them mitigate the effects of stress and develop resilience. Stories of your family overcoming hard times will help them believe that they can do the same. Bruce Feiler says:

“When faced with a challenge, happy families, like happy people, just add a new chapter to their life story that shows them overcoming the hardship. This skill is particularly important for children, whose identity tends to get locked in during adolescence.”

To help your children believe in their ability to overcome hard stuff, tell them the stories of people who have.

3. A glimpse of the soul

I first heard this concept from David Isay, founder of StoryCorps, and I’ve thought about it so much ever since. If you think of a loved one who is gone, photos are special, but what would any of us give to sit and listen to their voice again. There’s just something magic—mesmerizing—about the human voice.

Telling stories that we care about gives our kids the chance to really hear us. It’s different than the voice they so often hear… “Don’t forget to clear your plate!”

4. Practice developing a gift—the art of listening

It’s a gift, the ability to listen to understand instead of listening to respond. (As Stephen Covey would say.) Opening our mouths gives our kids the chance to get lost in a story. To listen for the sake of listening, instead of listening with the quiet motive of eventually being heard.

5. The ability to command attention

The other day, my husband and I were listening to a nonfiction audio book and found ourselves losing interest halfway through each chapter. When I thought about it, I realized that each chapter started with a story, which eventually gave way to studies and stats. The story captivated us. The supporting research? Not so much.

“We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.” Jonathan Gottschall

The human brain is wired for story. It’s the reason the most effective speeches are filled with inspiring, real-life examples. It’s the reason you can catch a class of rambunctious high school students dead silent five minutes before the bell rings: their teacher is telling a story.

When you know when and how to use it, it’s a powerful tool.

Bonus Parenting Tip

If you want your kids to really hear you and internalize some kind of lesson, show them—using a story—instead of lecturing them. It’s like the old but incredibly effective writing trick, “show, don’t tell.” Anyone can tell a kid to be honest; it takes more effort—but generates a much better outcome—to show the value of integrity with a story.

So that night, with these thoughts bouncing around in my head, the boys and I climbed into a twin-sized bed, the baby climbed (all elbows and knees) right on top of us, and I dove into the story of what it was like to swim with baby turtles in a salt water pool.


This is the kind of thing I get nerdy-curious about, so let’s hear it—Were your parents story tellers? Are you? 

Beautiful lifestyle photography courtesy of Denver-based Colie James Photography

14 Comments

  • Reply
    Katie @ Wonderfully Made
    October 7, 2014 at 4:51 am

    Love this post! I think it is so important to share your story with your children. My husband grew up in a private family. He hardly knew anything about his parents, especially their lives before becoming parents. They were always loving and kind but he did not feel like he really *knew* them. I grew up in a more open family, but realize looking back that the stories they told were more for laughs and entertainment rather than being raw and real and open. So we’re learning from both sides, and doing our best to find the right balance for our kids.

    • Reply
      Erica Layne
      October 7, 2014 at 12:25 pm

      What an interesting contrast, Katie. My dad told the fun and entertaining stories to us as kids (and thankfully shares them now with the grandkids), but they didn’t tell a lot of stories beyond that. Ryan’s family tends to reminisce a lot more, and I really appreciate that. I think there really is something to what Bruce Feiler calls the family narrative. Much love!

  • Reply
    Rachel T.
    October 7, 2014 at 8:01 am

    Turtles in a salt water pool! So fun. I love thinking of sharing my childhood (because it was awesome) with my kids. If only I could remember it better! You seem to have a better memory than I do. Same with Dad, he really does have a talent for coming up with and sharing interesting stories. Maybe I will have to gather up my childhood journals for some ideas…

    • Reply
      Erica Layne
      October 7, 2014 at 12:31 pm

      Rach! The turtles were Kent and Jan’s that they got in Tijuana! Do you remember that? I *may* have embellished the story for the boys, though, since my memory is honestly not very good either. Haha. But I do think the stories start coming back to you more and more once you’re kind of looking for them. Sierra and Sawyer will be ready before you know it!

      • Reply
        Rachel T.
        October 7, 2014 at 1:54 pm

        I do remember the turtles at Kent and Jan’s! Your boys are at such a fun age for stuff like this. I love imagining their little eyes brightening up and asking for more stories. I can totally see it/them! Can’t wait for Sierra and Sawyer to get there.

  • Reply
    Laura Lyle
    October 7, 2014 at 10:22 am

    I love this! Our kids are the same. When we tell family stories, they beg for more…and more! We tell dozens of stories at bed time and they still beg for more! Wonderful thoughts!

    • Reply
      Erica Layne
      October 7, 2014 at 12:29 pm

      Hi Laura! It’s to hear from you on here! I imagine that you two are quite the story tellers! And having seen Brock in action in primary, it’s not hard see why they’d be begging for more! Your kids are lucky their parents have so much spark. 🙂

  • Reply
    Sierra Burton
    October 7, 2014 at 2:34 pm

    Ah the art of listening. Such an important principle!
    P.S. I changed my blog URL but it is still me 🙂

  • Reply
    Lauren Tamm
    October 7, 2014 at 5:10 pm

    Story telling is so special. I hope to share many stories with my son as he gets a bit older than the pre-toddler phase. As a child, I was fascinated with stories my parents shared with me. Many I still remember today, and I let my imagination run. Sometimes we can all take the story where we want it to. I love that aspect of it.

    Lauren

  • Reply
    Chantel
    October 9, 2014 at 9:56 pm

    Oh yes, love this too! My daughter like to tell and ask for stories over and over again (like every other child I’m sure), I love thinking how she can pass these stories on to her children years from now. <3

  • Reply
    LERER
    October 9, 2014 at 11:44 pm

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  • Reply
    Teresa
    October 10, 2014 at 11:54 am

    My little one is tiny and is not into stories but I’m looking forward to the day she starts asking me about my life… a bit scared but excited.

  • Reply
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    […] Erica Layne of Let Why Lead expanded on this same topic recently, sharing the many benefits of family stories for kids. […]

  • Reply
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    February 16, 2016 at 10:40 pm

    […] Our stories bind together the past and present, give a glimpse of the soul, and help our children master the art of listening. {What Children Gain When You Open Up} […]

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