The other night, at a friend’s house for an early evening barbeque, I tried and failed repeatedly to get my 3-year-old son to eat his dinner.
It didn’t matter that the other kids at the table were eating. It didn’t matter that these were hot dogs we were talking about. And it definitely didn’t matter whether I pleaded or demanded that Leo fill his belly. He was, quite simply, not having it. And there was nothing I could do to change his mind.
Sensing my exasperation, my friend Jeremy leaned over and whispered: “Watch this.”
“Would anyone like to hear a story?” he asked. Leo stopped what he was doing, nodded, and listened intently as Jeremy spun a tale about a little boy lost in the forest who followed a single firefly, discovered a Sembar tree where all the other fireflies gathered to light up the night sky, and gained entrance to a secret, magical world.
Although there was a moral to Jeremy’s story, its message was not so symmetrical as to suggest that good boys clean their plates. And yet for the duration of the story, Leo listened, fully engaged in the wonders of an imaginary landscape, and absent-mindedly ate his dinner.
I was grateful for Jeremy’s clever parenting – and annoyed I didn’t think of it myself. After all, a convergence of recent research has confirmed something we have always instinctively known to be true: when we follow the trail of a well-crafted story, our brains light up like a Sembar tree.
Dr. James Zull is a professor of Biology at Case Western University, and the author of the book The Art of Changing the Brain. As he puts it, “We judge people by their stories, and we decide they are intelligent when their stories fit with our own stories. Recalling and creating stories are key parts of learning. We remember by connecting things with our stories, we create by connecting our stories together in unique and memorable ways, and we act out our stories in our behaviors.”
Zull says using vivid metaphors is a particularly effective way to foster new connections between the more than 100 billion neurons in a human brain. These connections are called neuronal networks, and once they’re made, they possess specific physical relationships to each other in the brain, and thus embody the concept of the relationship itself. “If you believe that learning is deepest when it engages the most parts of our brain,” Zull adds, “you can see the value of stories for the teacher. We should tell stories, create stories, and repeat stories, and we should ask our students to do the same.”
Of course, the same can be said for parents, and not just before bedtime. If we want our children to develop the internal hardware to understand the world – and then imagine that world through the eyes of experiences of others – we should help them make sense of their surroundings through the stories we read and share. It is, quite simply, how people learn – and oh by the way, it may even help your child finish his dinner.