Bedtime stories are good for you
"I have told over a thousand stories to my kids, which makes me the Barbara Cartland of bedtime storytelling" … Paul Chai. Photo: Getty Images (posed by models)
When my son was about three years old, he started to prolong bedtime by asking for "a story with the mouth" when his picture books were finished: a made-up tale told while I sat at the end of his bed. It was sweet, the sort of thing I'd imagined you did with kids, because before becoming a parent I was not much of a kid person and most of my parenting techniques were gleaned from Hollywood movies.
It turned out to be fun and, three years later, it's something of a tradition. I now have a second son, who is two, who joins in the ritual. For the statistically minded, this means that I have told somewhere over a thousand stories to my kids, which makes me the Barbara Cartland of bedtime storytelling. But just recently the well has run dry and, with my elder son at school, we've swapped my stories for reading a chapter of young kids' novels like Beast Quest and Zac Power.
I wondered about the three-year stint. Was telling fanciful fables on the end of my kids' beds any real use, or just a fun diversion? And should I keep it up for my younger son?
Poonkulali Govintharajah, psychologist from Kidpsych in Sydney's west, says that apart from just being good fun, telling stories to your kids stimulates the areas of the brain that control imagination, development, creativity and problem solving. "What we know from brain development research is that if you don't use it, you lose it, so when we stimulate this area with things like reading or storytelling we're triggering those neurons in the brain," says Govintharajah.
It also helps with exploring morals and values, assuming you are not re-engineering the classics so that Cinderella ends up selling a kidney to make ends meet.
Melbourne-based child psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg agrees: "Your child has 100 billion brain cells and a trillion connections, but at five they're not all wired up. What we do know is that the neurons that fire together early wire together, so what you are doing is creating this capacity."
Carr-Gregg adds that one of the key things storytelling or reading aloud does is show your kids that they are important to you and open up clear lines of communication in the future. "When they're teenagers this will be the most valuable thing you've ever done, because what you're doing is putting a deposit in the bank of resilience for later on," he says. "It creates this view that is hardwired into their minds that you are a charismatic adult who makes them feel safe and valued and listened to."
What about the nights when I'm shattered after a long day and phoning it in? Like the evening I recited the plot of Star Wars, using the characters of Toy Story. (Lazy, I know, but I'm going to call it a mash-up.) "That's just part of life," says Govintharajah. "You tell them Dad's tired. There's no right way or wrong way, but every experience is realistic for that child."
But what about when my son asked for scary stories? I obliged with something I thought was PG but at one point he burst into tears, though he calmed down when assured that (spoiler alert) it would be a happy ending. "Give him that control back," Govintharajah says. "Tell him it's okay to be fearful, but that you can do something about it."
She also says that stories about real-life issues such as divorce and illness can be used as a safe way of showcasing difficult issues, particularly if the child is avoiding speaking about such issues in their own life.
"Some kids love scary stuff," says Carr-Gregg. "Though asking for scary stories might mean they have a sensation-seeking temperament, so in his teenage years you might want to make sure you channel that into kitesurfing rather than train surfing."
Bedside bards needn't think they have to deliver the Odyssey every night to have a positive effect. "It's just fun and you get a lot from that," says Govintharajah. "People underestimate the power of fun and what that can do in terms of brain development."
And the epilogue to our suspension of storytelling is that the "story with the mouth" has made a triumphant comeback – and with the short hiatus, I may just have another thousand in me.