At a time of so much social upheaval, many people are naturally questioning the relevance of many cultural traditions. So let’s use this opportunity to discover how timeless stories from other cultures have enriched and influenced our society.
Every culture has passed stories along through its oral tradition. As stories were shared, they were honed by the teller to make them more relevant, more entertaining, and even easier to remember. These stories survived for multiple generations as myths, legends, fables, fairy tales, and even tall tales. It’s also important to remember that one of the reasons these tales survived is that they are quite simply very entertaining stories.
It’s easy to make a case for the academic value of these timeless stories since they make it easy for children to learn about the critical elements of story structure (characters, time, place, plotline, conflict, resolution, etc.). It’s also important to note that these stories were honed over generations to make them easy to listen to and easy to remember. As a result, they can help children develop the critical reading skills of phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.
Today, I want to go beyond the academic value of these stories to explore the unique contribution they’ve made to our culture.
We tend to forget that these seemingly simple stories, were used to carry valuable messages. The oral tradition simply made it easier for a society to share common history, to reinforce cultural values, to celebrate significant life passages or to highlight important traditions.
Our ancestors typically lived in nomadic tribes and later in small, isolated villages. Since everyone’s survival was interdependent, people needed to work collaboratively for the common good. As a result, people didn’t have the sense of independence that we tend to take for granted today. Conflict and even individual preferences needed to be limited. Typically only the chief, a high priest, or the shaman could confront someone over an offense or intervene to resolve a serious disagreement.
In addition to providing entertainment, a skilled storyteller could use stories as metaphors to help people recognize themselves or their issues without feeling foolish or defensive. This recognition could lead to reconciliation of a conflict or even transform a person’s perspective about how they might modify their behavior to resolve a challenging problem. By necessity, these stories incorporated a culture’s core values like caring, resourcefulness, trust or courage into the fabric of the plotline.
Typically stories from the oral tradition were based on a timeless story archetype that included confronting a conflict and then resolving it to conclude the plotline. As a result of this familiar plot structure, these stories inevitably modeled the elements of effective decision making. When characters encountered conflicts, they had to make difficult decisions to take action. These actions led to clear-cut consequences: responsible or wise decisions led to positive outcomes while making irresponsible or impulsive decisions inevitably led to negative outcomes.
Today when we share stories from different cultures with kids, we inevitably celebrate diversity. Even though another culture may have different beliefs, history, and customs, their stories typically share our core values, model consequences for making decisions, and provide invaluable insights into human behavior.
As kids experience stories from another time and place, they have the opportunity to safely explore connections and perspectives they probably couldn’t imagine on their own. By learning about stories from different cultures, they can discover surprising insights and can begin to see the shared bonds of our common humanity.
Listening or reading these stories also can lead kids to realize that their dreams and aspirations may have more in common with other people than they realized. They may find that people who look quite different and celebrate different traditions, may share more in common than they expected. When we immerse children in stories from “other” ethnic groups, religions, and cultural traditions, kids are likely to discover unexpected similarities and common connections.
Today kids are growing up in uncertain times, in a more interconnected global society with many complex interdependencies. One of the easiest ways to introduce children to the many wonders of this rapidly changing world is through sharing timeless stories from other cultures. These timeless stories have withstood the test of multiple generations to share valuable, universal truths.
During this period when we’re physically isolated and spending more time at home, why not take this opportunity to select classic stories from a variety of cultures and explore how these stories have shaped and influenced peoples’ lives in unexpected ways?