LET GROW: What do you tell parents who have a hard time coming up with a “homemade” story to tell their kids?
ANTONIO SACRE: Just today my dad told me a story about my grandfather whom I never met! He died 10 years before I was born. But that man is a constant in my life because my dad is always talking about him.
So parents should tell stories about…dead people?
I ask them to think about five family members that they love and they would want their children to meet. Now hopefully, your children can meet these five people, but sometimes that's not the case.
Ah! Got it: Tell about the people you love, whether they’re around or not. But will that story automatically be good? What makes a story work?
When you get to a very specific place you end up landing at the universal. Nobody has the exact same background as me – my mom is from a huge Catholic family in Boston, my dad is Cuban. But there’s an image in one of my stories about my grandmother’s beautiful, plush, white couch – covered in half-inch-thick clear plastic covering. That’s just my grandmother’s couch.
That’s my Aunt Rae's couch too!
Yes – it allows everyone to think of their auntie. But the key that turns the engine is conflict. “We went to the state fair and everything was perfect” – that’s not a good story. “We went to the state fair and I couldn’t find my mom” – that’s a good story. What did you do? How did you find her? A character wants something they can’t have. The girl wants to be reunited with mom, the dad wants the kid to behave, the grandma doesn’t want the teenager on the couch.
Got it. Conflict is the soul of drama. More tips, please.
There’s a fine line between not getting specific enough and too much detail. The super important thing is listening to your audience.
If they’re snoring: bad. What if you want to tell a story that isn’t about the family?
In the last five years or so I’ve been researching the ancient stories – the Bible stories, the Greek myths, the Grimm’s fairy tales – and there’s a reason some of these have been around hundreds, if not thousands, of years. It’s back to somebody wanting something they can’t have.
Like the sour grapes. Or immortality. Or…?
For instance, it’s flu season. The kids need shots. The story is the shot really stinks, but having the flu is worse and people we respect say to get the shot and we do, and afterward, we get ice cream. And every year I tell my kids the story of when I was five and I had to get a shot they needed 4 nurses and my dad to hold me down. So they each got a limb and my dad was holding my torso – and my kids love that story. And it gets better every year – last time it was only two nurses. So storytelling becomes the fabric of our lives, which helps with a tough situation. They see that when I was younger, I had the same fears. When my daughter was four she said, “Daddy, they didn’t need to hold all my limbs down.”
How do you teach storytelling?
I will give some random storytelling prompt to a teacher or students or parents. I’ll say, “Turn to somebody and tell them a little bit about the branch you saw on the street.” Now that’s a boring story. And after a minute I’ll say, “Please raise your hand if you thought you were telling a boring story.” The hands go up. “Now raise your hand if you thought you HEARD an interesting story.” And more than half the hands go up.
Many of us don’t think our stories matter, or that they are interesting. There was a 5-year-old girl in kindergarten and I was trying to get her to tell stories about her family and she said they’re all boring. I said, “Well, tell me about your dad.” He’s boring. “Your mom?” She’s boring. Your uncle? Boring. “Is there anybody else?” Well her aunt lives next door to them and she has a braid that goes down to her heels and she dances while singing Bulgarian folk songs. To HER that’s just a woman she saw every day of her life. To ME she’s a fairy tale character who deserves her own reality show! When we live with our stories, some of us think they’re not really interesting. But 75% of the time you’re wrong – your story IS interesting to somebody else.
And even if it’s NOT interesting it’s going to remind the listener of somebody else they have in their life. So now you’re giving them the gift of a memory – even a boring story unlocks a memory in somebody else.
There’s neuroscience behind this. Your brain is searching through your memory bank to find a connection – we are literally trying to connect with somebody. So when you say, “My boring uncle…” my brain is going into overdrive thinking about all MY uncles.
That is really cool – how stories bring up memories and make us connect to each other and all that we’ve seen and heard.
And there’s one last thing I’ll say, and that is storytelling ties in with helping your kids read. There’s tons of research. Speaking to kids and listening to them activates the literacy part of their brain that helps them become better readers and writers. Watching TV is great because it helps you shut off your brain and just chill out, so I’m not saying you have to spend ten hours a day engaged in meaningful stories with your kids. I don’t want anyone to do MORE than they’re already doing. But if you’re in the car and you have literally a strapped in audience…
Maybe tell a story?
Well, my kid is 10 and it’s reasonable to think he’ll live with us till 18 – or 40. Who knows? But say I have eight more years with him. How many people can I talk to him about whom he’ll never meet? Most of my stories will be boring and he won’t remember them, but maybe he’ll be really moved by my 5th grade baseball coach or my 10th grade college counselor.
So we don’t just talk about family?
No! How many people have we met in our lives? You have no idea until you start to tell about some of them. Who were the kids in your second grade class? Or your minister, rabbi or priest? Who was that one amazing teacher that made a difference, or the one that was so boring who you hated? Why do you still remember him? My daughter’s in second grade. I think about second grade. My gym teacher made me do all those sit-ups. It seemed so mean – but I got so fit! The short answer is: just tell more stories.