The lost art of bedtime storytelling
I was a child who grew up in the University of the Philippines Los Baños College of Forestry faculty housing on the slopes of Mount Makiling, where nighttime teemed with wildlife including bees, wasps, beetles, moths, cicadas, lizards, and occasional katydids—all of which somehow found their way through our apartment’s metal screens into my room, while the croak of the tuko (gecko) punctuated the cacophony of the forest.
All this jungle nightlife was fascinating, but what made the nights even more alive were my mother’s bedtime stories. There were families of cats, hamsters, whales and dolphins in the universe that she conjured, and now, many years later, I trace my fondness for animals, not from Disney, but from the characters that existed in her mind and mine. From a single encyclopedia illustration of an ant colony, my mother created characters of ants talking to each other about where food could be found, and vignettes of young ants struggling to carry a kernel of rice. Until now, whenever I see tiny ants shaking antennas with each other, I imagine what they are talking about.
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Scholars have long recognized the many benefits of bedtime storytelling—whether through the reading of books or the unscripted narration of original and adapted tales. In the first place, bedtime storytelling does help put kids to sleep by transitioning their bodies and minds from the day’s activities into the stages of slumber.
Moreover, various studies show that bedtime storytelling helps facilitate the expansion of a child’s vocabulary, which in turn leads to better and faster reading comprehension, and overall early learning. Another way it boosts language learning is by improving listening skills. Storytelling is also a way of transmitting cultural values, strengthening parent-child bonds, and, ultimately, enhancing the way a child relates with others.
Very recently, using the most advanced brain imaging technology, neuroscientists in the United States lent further credence to the benefits of storytelling by finding that “in preschool children listening to stories, greater home reading exposure is positively associated with activation of brain areas supporting mental imagery and narrative comprehension.”
But perhaps the more convincing proof of bedtime storytelling’s worth can be found in the biographies and testimonies of the great writers themselves.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez credits his maternal grandparents for greatly influencing his writing. His grandfather, a colonel, told stories of a civil war that would inspire unforgettable characters like Col. Aureliano Buendia, while his grandmother’s sense of the supernatural would help give rise to the magical realism that suffused his works.
When Nick Joaquin—one of our greatest writers—was a boy, his mother Salome, a schoolteacher, was said to have read him poems and stories. From Rizal’s retelling of the now-immortal parable of an old moth warning a young one not to approach the fire, we know that Teodora Alonzo, too, was a bedtime storyteller. Rizal’s response to that story shows how it stoked his imagination: “To me moths ceased to be insignificant insects; moths talked, and knew how to warn. They advised just like my mother. The light seemed to me more beautiful, dazzling, attractive. I knew why the moths circled the flame.”
The list of writers who drew inspiration from the stories they heard during their childhood is long, and spans various cultures where storytelling is a time-honored tradition.
Today, however, studies worldwide show that children are no longer told stories. A 2013 survey in the United States found that only one in three parents read bedtime stories to their children every night. A 2015 study in the United Kingdom found that among 1,000 parents, “34 percent never read a bedtime story to their children, with 29 percent blaming late working and 26 percent the daily commute.” Almost certainly, in this age of urbanization, overseas migration, and changing family configurations, the same trend can be said of the Philippines.
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In many ways bedtime storytelling runs counter to the trend of the times. While the desire for virality goes for reaching as many people as possible, the bedtime story has an audience of one, and while our movies and even our lectures are designed to keep people from falling asleep, bedtime stories are designed to make kids fall asleep in the end. The master storyteller, at the end of her narration, gets no applause, but silence.
But it is precisely because it goes against the spirit of the times that we must maintain or revive this tradition. For the creative forces we field—no matter how powerful—did not come from our minds ex nihilo, but are gifts from the people who have enriched our lives, beginning with our childhood. We owe it to the next generations to make sure these gifts are passed on.
Thus, the parents of today and tomorrow are called upon to resist an impulse to leave the task of the storytelling to the TV screen. There will be a time for that—days ahead when the child will be immersed in cartoons, YouTube videos, and online games. Indeed, a time will come when our children will resist our words. Thus, precious are the moments when they are still all ears.
And to those among us who were privileged to grow up with stories, let us pay tribute to the people who raised us—not just as the parents and guardians we love, but also as bedtime storytellers: whisperers of lore who planted the seeds of imagination that will always animate our world.
Gideon Lasco is a physician and medical anthropologist. Follow him at Gideon Lasco on Facebook and @gideonlasco on Twitter and Instagram.
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