CYC-Online 94 NOVEMBER 2006
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Jim Woodard

In response to the increasing concern about juvenile delinquency throughout the country, I’d like to offer a suggestion. Personally, I am not a psychologist or psychiatrist – I’m only expressing my view from the perspective of a seasoned storyteller and decades of working with and counseling kids. The age-old practice of oral storytelling is a viable tool that can be used to reduce juvenile delinquency, particularly in the area of diverting youngsters at an early age from starting down the path toward delinquent behavior.

It may seem like a stretch, but storytelling can have a powerful and very positive influence on the lives of kids. It’s such an old communications art form that many people overlook its value in reaching and motivating today’s kids. I’ve seen it work wonders in recent years. I first saw the value of oral storytelling firsthand when working as a counselor at Boys Town, Nebraska. Later, while serving as chairman of the Santa Barbara County Juvenile Justice Commission and Delinquency Prevention Commission, I had another chance to see the positive impact of storytelling. And today, when presenting storytelling programs at schools, libraries and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, where I serve as resident storyteller, I see the continuing positive influence of storytelling on kids and youth.

The stories that seem to captivate young listeners the most are true stories about real people – great achievers. Many of these achievers, including past U.S. presidents, had a difficult time during their youth. But they managed to overcome those difficulties and attain great success in their chosen field. They could have followed a path that led to misery, but instead made the choice to follow a productive path that led to success and a fulfilled life.

Today’s kids need to know about such achievers. These highly successful individuals can become role models. And the best way to implant these stories in young minds is via a real person standing before them, telling stories of great achievers' lives. Often a question and answer period follows the story presentation. It becomes a very personalized experience.

Therapeutic value of storytelling
A seldom-recognized benefit of storytelling, particularly with children, is its strong therapeutic value. In preparing this information, I interviewed a number of highly respected psychologists-therapists. “I often use storytelling as a means of finding out what’s troubling my very young patients,” said noted psychologist Dr. Susan M. Lesnik, PhD. “I will sometimes start a story and ask the youngster to continue it in whatever way the boy or girl desires. It brings out things buried deep within a person's being. It’s a great way to analyze problem areas in the patient’s life. And it helps the young person, or sometimes an adult, sort things out in their own mind. They feel secure in putting their thoughts in the framework of a story, keeping their real lives at a safe distance. “

There’s something about storytelling – it has great healing capabilities. Dr. Lesnik has observed the power of storytelling during most of her life. Her father was a well-known professional storyteller in their home state of North Carolina. To site a specific example of this storytelling capability, I'll describe a personal experience.

A revealing question
I had just completed a 45-minute storytelling program at the Reagan Presidential Library. After chatting with several kids and adults who came to the front of the theater, a professional-looking woman approached me – identifying herself as a newspaper reporter. She requested a short interview between my scheduled presentations. We sat in a couple of theater seats discussing my storytelling avocation. One of her questions gave me new insight into the potential value of storytelling – storytelling’s healing or therapeutic impact on troubled youngsters. When the reporter learned that I started my storytelling activities while working as a counselor at Boys Town, she asked if storytelling was regularly used as therapeutic treatment for the young citizens at Boys Town. No, I told her. In fact, I was the only counselor who told stories to the kids. And that was just for the purpose of entertaining them and quieting my brood of 97 energetic and restless youngsters at bedtime.

But the reporter’s question made me think back to my working days at Boys Town and of the benefits of age-old storytelling. There were indeed cases where storytelling served as powerful and very effective therapeutic treatment. Most of these boys came from unhappy or downright tragic family backgrounds. In many cases, their families were so splintered by a variety of problems there seemed to be no way the youngster could be properly cared for. In other cases, they were abandoned by family and relatives.

During their early days at Boys Town, the youngsters tended to brood about their unfortunate situation in life. And this would sometimes manifest itself in very bizarre behavior patterns. But when they became deeply involved in a story, their minds focused away from their personal plight and on the story characters. Our candid discussions after the telling of a story clearly revealed a deep sense of care and concern about those characters. Their obsession with their own problems melted away for the moment, replaced with empathy for people who became very real in their own minds while following the storyline. Also, as they became fascinated by a sequence of stories, the boys developed a desire to read more stories on their own. This, in turn, sharpened their reading skills, improved their vocabulary and generally helped to push their grades up at school and enhance their self-esteem.

The professor
Storytelling produced yet another benefit that I never expected. One of my charges was a 13-year-old lad who was particularly depressed with his situation. None of the other boys liked him, he tearfully told me one day in my office. They called him “The Professor,” since he often used big words and seemed to “speak down” to his fellow young citizens. He was so down on himself he even had thoughts of taking his life, he said. Searching for a way to turn his thinking around, I suggested he write a story about his life, focusing particularly on the positive things that happened to him before and after coming to Boys Town. Since writing was his favorite thing to do, he immediately sparked up to the idea. He worked hard and long on that story. When completed, he brought it into my office with a big grin on his face. It was a very good story – well thought out and nicely written in every respect. I sent it to a friend of mine in Omaha, a personality on a major radio station. He liked it so much, he scheduled it for a reading on his radio program – complete with background music and production. Word about the upcoming program spread throughout Boys Town, and nearly everyone listened to that very special narration.

That story, written by a troubled youngster, seem to give him the positive spin needed to whirl him out of depression. He suddenly had more respect from his peers. He was still called The Professor and had his share of problems. But now he could balance the negative and positive elements in his life in a normal manner.

"Art has traditionally been used to access dimensions within ourselves,” said noted storyteller and educator Ruth Stotter. “A current hot button is the recognition that storytelling and story listening affect an individual’s psychological and physical well-being.” Storytelling is the oldest and still the best teacher. And it has healing and therapeutic powers seldom recognized in today’s sophisticated society.

I’d like to see an organized effort to recruit storytellers on a community level to plan and present special storytelling sessions at schools and libraries. Storytellers could be parents, teachers, librarians – anyone interested in encouraging kids to build their lives constructively. Kids tend to get jaded by watching stories on electronic and movie screens, large and small. But when they listen to a story being told by an individual, they form their own images just the way they want them in their own minds. Therefore, they have a stronger and more lasting effect in their lives.

The spoken word can redirect lives, for good or bad. We need to use them in a smart and positive way to help today’s kids. Oral storytelling is the most effective format.

This feature: Woodward, J. (2002). Storytelling. Paradigm, Summer 2002

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