off the cuff

Telling stories, building bonds

We now marvel at the analysis and research that is going into storytelling — something that was so much a part of our lives that it was taken completely for granted

Cheryl RaoSpecial to Gulf News
16:49 September 16, 2016

Reading to children and telling them stories is what everyone is talking of nowadays. The age at which we start doing this and how long we continue to read/tell stories to our children makes a difference to their reading and thinking ability, gives a feeling of warmth and sharing, and draws them closer to their parents: things we are very concerned about in a time when it is so easy for children to isolate themselves with electronic entertainment.

Today, unlike earlier, books and e-books are fairly easily available, but it is probably more difficult (with all the other attractions and distractions around) for parents to find time to read to young children or entertain them with stories after a hard day’s work.

Our parents were busy too, both at work and at play, but without having any idea of this later research, they just came along and tucked us into bed, told us a story and we dozed off happily.

Since we were in small towns where children’s books were not easy to come by, our parents’ stories were a combination of fairy tales and folk tales, dramatisation of what had happened in their day, what was happening in the world around us or a simplified rendering of what they were reading at the time. They adapted the situations and the names to make them understandable for us with our limited experience of the world and they toned down the frightening parts — but they kept us entranced.

They didn’t make a ritual of reading to us at bedtime, the way we did for our children, and if we begged for one more story they sometimes indulged us, but more often than not let the other storytellers in the room take up the challenge and continue where they left off.

Spin another yarn

Any one of the three of us siblings — or whichever cousin happened to be visiting — would either continue the story, or provide an epilogue, or just spin another yarn. Those impromptu sessions were not something anyone prepared for or thought about much. They just happened naturally. And as the youngest in the group, I was generally the lucky beneficiary of everyone else’s imaginative renderings of literature and history lessons (their favourite source of stories) ... and thus when I reached the class they were in, I had a distinct advantage over the others. I had heard it all before!

Stories could spring at us at unexpected times: It could be on a train journey or a car journey when we siblings were restless and sniping at each other; it could be on a rainy day when we were confined indoors; it could be when a sad event had touched our lives and we needed cheering up. No one was too busy on a laptop or cell phone to launch into a tale and take us with them to another time and place.

Perhaps that is why we now marvel at the analysis and research that is going into storytelling — something that was so much a part of our lives that it was taken completely for granted.

Our attention is also drawn to the fact that parents are being urged to get back to stories to help “children bond better with their story tellers”. Our parents didn’t think of building bonds with us through all those stories and we didn’t think about it either when we went with our children into the land of fiction. We considered that bond natural and organic and meant to last through thick and thin.

That the stories linger in our hearts, however, and often come to mind along with the feeling we had at the time, surely points to the bonds that were being built without our being aware of what was going on.

Cheryl Rao is a journalist based in India.