Neuroscience reveals that not only are we wired for stories, but our brains are activated up to five times more when we hear a good tale. If true, then parents should maximize storytelling and not just leave it to teachers! But how? Matt Bianco and Brian Phillips identify the roadblocks, offer advice and walk us through their newest book filled with fairytales and templates to guide parents and kids in conversation. May the story force be with you, parents!
Matthew Bianco is the Director of the Lost Tools of Writing for the CiRCE Institute where he also serves as the Head Mentor for Teacher Apprenticeship. All three of his children have graduated from their family’s home school. The oldest has since graduated from St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD and works for the CLT. His second and third children are attending Belmont Abbey College near Charlotte, NC. He is married to his altogether lovely high school sweetheart, Patricia. He is the author of Letters to My Sons: A Humane Vision for Human Relationships.
Brian Phillips is the Director of CiRCE Consulting & the Headmaster of the CiRCE Academy. He also serves as a pastor in Concord, NC, where he lives with his wife and their four children.
Bianco and Phillips co-authored Tales of Wonder (Volume I): 8 Essential Fairy Tales + Discussion Questions and the recently released sequel Tales of Wonder (Volume II): 8 More Essential Fairy Tales + Discussion Questions.
May The Story Force Be With You
~ A Conversation with Matt Bianco and Brian Phillips
Estimated reading time: 5 min, 36 sec (1121 words)
Can you believe that Benjamin Franklin once considered himself to be a mediocre writer?
In his autobiography, Franklin describes how he improved his writing. Spending money on books rather than food, he collected issues of The Spectator, a British politics and culture magazine. Sitting at his desk by candlelight, he dissected and memorized the essays. Laying them aside, he would rewrite them…over and over and over.
“Comparing my work afterward with the original, I discovered many faults and amended them…this encouraged me to think I might possibly in time come to be a tolerable English writer.”
As history shows, Franklin became one of America’s most brilliant statesmen and essayists.
You will probably remember this story of young Franklin better than if you had read bullet points or a power point slide. Perhaps you imagined Franklin sitting at his desk by the flickering candlelight, pouring over his books and his stomach rumbling loudly.
That’s because we are wired for storytelling. Our brains activate five times more when we hear a story and we are more likely to remember and retell it.
Telling a great story can be challenging for some parents
On a recent BaseCamp Live episode, host Davies Owens interviews co-authors Matt Bianco and Brian Phillips about leveraging the power of storytelling, particularly fairytales, to engage children in great conversations. They’ve just published Tales of Wonder (Volume II): 8 More Essential Fairy Tales + Discussion Questions. Preceded by Volume I, it serves as a tool to aid parents and kids as they discuss stories.
In the classical Christian world of education and homeschool, “The better discussions you have and the more you talk, the more opportunity you have to encounter Truth. Learning to have conversations about great ideas, great books and great stories are going to shape who we are,” says Brian Phillips.
Remove the barriers first
According to Bianco and Phillips, parents need to remove any roadblocks around discussion.
“We think of education in terms of outcomes, measurable results, scholarships, test scores and grades,” notes Phillips. But if education is about the cultivation of wisdom and virtue, then sorting through ideas takes time and patience and aren’t always quantifiable.
Additionally, while inquisitive kindergarteners always ask “Why?”, talking to aloof teens can be rather tricky. Parents also compete with technology and don’t always know the best questions for generating positive discussion.
Finally, when parents do engage their children in extended conversation, they sometimes moralize a story before kids have a chance to ponder it. This can shut down a conversation quicker than Cinderella’s greedy stepsisters rushing to try on the glass slipper.
A great story is for all ages…even a fairytale
Bianco and Phillips wrote the Tales of Wonder books to help parents know where to start. In Owens’ assessment, “This book you’ve created around tales of wonder is meant to be a catalyst to help create this combination of a great story and thoughtful questions.”
The good news is that a good story, even a fairytale, can be for all ages, not just for little ones. As Aristotle once said, “All human beings by nature desire to know.” The beauty comes when listeners recover the wonder in the story. And wonder often comes via listening to and discussing a great tale.
Phillips tells parents to encourage children to enjoy a good story, reflect on it and not feel pressured to give “correct” answers. Parents also need to regularly model for their kids what having a thoughtful conversation looks like. Start by telling them about your day rather than asking a million questions the moment they come home from school.
The secret weapon – combine great stories with meaningful questions
The secret weapon of Tales of Wonder is that it offers stories with templates that parents can follow. The eight tales in the second volume include: Sleeping Beauty, The Emperor’s New Suit, The Princess and the Pea, The Ugly Duckling, Thumbelina, The Three Little Pigs, The Golden Goose, and Jack and the Beanstalk.
Each fairytale begins with a summary about the author and tale. When reading the story, 3-4 blocks of questions are interspersed throughout. These might include “What do you think the character is about to do?” or “Should he/she do that in this situation?” At the end of the tale, the parent prompts the child to retell what they can remember, but with no pressure. A final section, called “Listening for Echoes”, connects themes back to other stories, as well as to Scripture. For instance, a parent and child might discuss how Cinderella is similar to Joseph in the Bible.
Leverage emotions to shape right thinking
Fairytales often leave listeners feeling a certain way and some stories have more shocking endings than others. And a good story should stir up emotions.
Rather than dismissing feelings, the book prompts parents to ask, “How does the ending make you feel?” and “Why does the ending make you feel this way?” As Bianco explains, “Yes, we are asking for their emotional reaction to it. We’re asking them to validate that from the text…what in the story makes you feel that way?”
In the case that an emotional response or sentiment is concerning or misguided, we turn to C.S. Lewis for advice. As he wrote in The Abolition of Man, “The right reaction to false sentiments is to inculcate right sentiments.” Sharing and discussing fairytales allows us to explore the depths of our emotions and either validate or reorder our thoughts, if needed.
If he were alive today, J.R.R. Tolkien would likely praise Bianco and Phillips’ defense of fairytales. In Tolkien’s own words, “It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the “turn” comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality.”
Yes, knocking down barriers and maximizing stories for better family conversation is possible. Tune in to the podcast for more inspiration and consider adding fairytales to your family’s reading time.
Even Albert Einstein would agree. He wisely advised, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairytales, if you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairytales.”
Key Links and Resources
Tales of Wonder (Volume I): 8 Essential Fairy Tales + Discussion Questions
Tales of Wonder (Volume II): 8 More Essential Fairy Tales + Discussion Questions
Podcast Network: https://www.circeinstitute.org/podcast