Albert Einstein once said, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”
The art of storytelling through folklore in the form of fables and fairy tales is a highly effective method of oral communication that dates back to the very beginning of time. There’s not been a civilization throughout the history of mankind that hasn’t been marked by some form of the oral tradition. These stories, many of which have been passed down from generation to generation, are found in every different region and country around the world. Storytelling is such a powerful way to convey a message that it can directly influence cultural practices, often to the point where the story itself and the passing along of the story become an integral part of a culture and its people’s customs.
So, what exactly is folklore? And what is the difference between a fairy tale and a fable?
- Folklore is the embodiment of traditional beliefs, customs, and stories of a community or culture passed through the generations by word of mouth.
- A fairy tale is a children's story about imaginary beings and magical lands, in which there is a conflict between good and evil, culminating in a happy ending with good triumphing over evil.
- A fable is a short story, typically with animals as characters, conveying a moral message and conditioning beliefs and behaviors.
It never dawned on me, until I started researching for this blog, the extent to which storytelling influences human behavior and has its place in shaping cultures. Think of the folklore you heard as a child — whether in the form of fable or fairy tale. These stories likely included some of the most important life lessons that you ever learned; those that molded your morals, influenced your values, and played an integral part in the person you are today.
It doesn't necessarily matter the country of origin for the folk-story you're telling (or reading) or even whether it's a fable or a fairy tale, they all have a common thread. The commonality is that built into the story is a deeper meaning, message, or lesson that is made powerfully irresistible by using the story as a vehicle to successfully convey that deeper meaning, message, or lesson to your audience — especially if that audience happens to be children!
So we’ve established that storytelling is long-lived, widespread, and a highly effective way to orally communicate. Now we take that even one step further: Using stories to teach virtues is probably one of the most significant contributions that a parent can make toward developing good character in their children. But precisely why stories? Why not just explain right from wrong? Perhaps a list of dos and don’ts? The reason being that lists miserably fail to reach children on a level that matters in comparison with stories, which encourage the use of their imagination, provide an abundance of relevant examples, and of course are oodles of fun!
Engaging in a story allows children to use their imagination to create a unique mental picture for themselves as a reference. This self-generated image is essential because it reinforces the information that has been conveyed through the story, ultimately providing children with an emotional attachment to the story; thus to the deeper meaning as well. Due to this emotional attachment, parents can communicate their message more easily, children comprehend it more fully, and the deeper meaning will have far greater longevity. With all these attributes, the lesson learned becomes a most potent catalyst for action. In other words — having learned a lesson from a story, children are more likely to 'do the right thing' when faced with complex life choices.
Stories also provide parents with a wealth of wonderful foundational examples to build off of; the kinds that are likely missing from a child's everyday environment. They allow parents the ability to highlight positive outcomes from doing the right thing — which children lack the forethought to comprehend and predict. We must remember that children are a blank slate (of sorts) — they have so few life experiences from which they can process.
For example, a child might find themselves facing a challenge requiring persistence and perseverance of them. Trying to explain the concepts of those virtues to a child, already frustrated with a situation, sounds like trying to light a match in a windstorm — pretty futile, right? Of course, the textbook definitions of persistence and perseverance would not only be boring for them to listen to and complex for them to understand, but it more than likely would not yet have applied meaning for them based on any real-life events, because they've experienced so little in life.
However, relating the concepts of persistence and perseverance — perhaps without even using the words — by personifying a sweet little turtle and an over-confident bunny rabbit (for both of whom a child has natural empathy) is a very compelling and memorable way to teach a child about the two virtues. And after hearing Aesop's Fable of the mismatched racers, and learning that ingenuity (rather than doggedness) will overcome a stronger opponent, there is a far greater chance that facing that type of adversity the child will persist and persevere remembering 'The Tortoise and the Hare.'
And of course, last but not least, is the fun factor. Storytelling is fun. It's fun for the teller as well as the listeners. When communicating an important message — even life's code of conduct to obtain a moral compass — doing so in a fun manner makes it all the more appealing and memorable. That's because there's nothing better than a fun fictional story to help any of us make sense out of real-life situations — in particular for children. Not to mention that little ones will clamor to hear a fun tale over and over again. The repetition and repletion of the story (and its deeper meaning) will make for an enduring life-lesson learned.
So, in a nutshell, those are the reasons that you'll find storytelling — through folklore — a highly effectual way to communicate your moral messages to your children. Aside from helping you teach them right from wrong — fables and fairy tales can also boost creative ability and cultural literacy, assist in the development of critical thinking skills, and make external (as well as internal) conflict resolution easier. Einstein was definitely onto something!
And it seems Albert and I aren't the only ones noting the benefits of folklore, fables, and fairy tales for children. In recent decades, the effectiveness of teaching children (especially virtues) by way of storytelling has been studied by renowned psychologists. One such doctor, Bruno Bettelheim lent a significant impetus to this movement more than 40 years ago with his publication of The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales(1975). "It hardly requires emphasis at this moment in our history," Bettelheim wrote, "that children need a moral education . . . [that teaches] not through abstract ethical concepts, but through that which seems tangibly right and therefore meaningful . . . the child finds this kind of meaning through fairy tales." In the weeks to come, we intend to look more closely at some of the traditional virtues that parents hope to instill in their children by pairing those with popular folklore that can help. After this series of blogs, you'll be able to confidently utilize these classic fables and fairy tales to teach your little ones some of life's greatest lessons.
Do you have a favorite fable or fairy tale from your childhood that you believe helped to shape you? If so, please share it below — perhaps we'll even include it in our series! And if we do use your idea, we'll send you a surprise gift!
Oh! And by the way, we'd be ever so grateful if you'd...