Ever wondered why boys and girls choose particular toys, particular colors and particular stories? Why is it that girls want to dress in pink and to be princesses, or boys want to be Darth Vader, warriors and space adventurers?
Stories told to children can make a difference.
Scholars have found that stories have a strong influence on children’s understanding of cultural and gender roles. Stories do not just develop children’s literacy; they convey values, beliefs, attitudes and social norms which, in turn, shape children’s perceptions of reality.
I found through my research that children learn how to behave, think, and act through the characters that they meet through stories.
So, how do stories shape children’s perspectives?
Why stories matter
Stories – whether told through picture books, dance, images, math equations, songs or oral retellings – are one of the most fundamental ways in which we communicate.
Nearly 80 years ago, Louise Rosenblatt, a widely known scholar of literature, articulated that we understand ourselves through the lives of characters in stories. She argued that stories help readers understand how authors and their characters think and why they act in the way they do.
Similarly, research conducted by Kathy Short, a scholar of children’s literature, also shows that children learn to develop through stories a critical perspective about how to engage in social action.
Stories help children develop empathy and cultivate imaginative and divergent thinking – that is, thinking that generates a range of possible ideas and/or solutions around story events, rather than looking for single or literal responses.
Impact of stories
So, when and where do children develop perspectives about their world, and how do stories shape that?
Studies have shown that children develop their perspectives on aspects of identity such as gender and race before the age of five.
A key work by novelist John Berger suggests that very young children begin to recognize patterns and visually read their worlds before they learn to speak, write or read printed language. The stories that they read or see can have a strong influence on how they think and behave.
Stories for change
Scholars have also shown how stories can be used to change children’s perspectives about their views on people in different parts of the world. And not just that; stories can also influence how children choose to act in the world.
For example, Hilary Janks works with children and teachers on how images in stories on refugees influence how refugees are perceived.
Kathy Short studied children’s engagement with literature around human rights. In their work in a diverse K-5 school with 200 children, they found stories moved even such such young children to consider how they could bring change in their own local community and school.
These children were influenced by stories of child activists such as Iqbal, a real-life story of Iqbal Masih, a child activist who campaigned for laws against child labor. (He was murdered at age 12 for his activism.) Children read these stories along with learning about human rights violations and lack of food for many around the world. In this school, children were motivated to create a community garden to support a local food bank.
Building intercultural perspectives
When children read stories about other children from around the world, such as “Iqbal,” they learn new perspectives that both extend beyond beyond and also connect with their local contexts.
At a time when children are being exposed to negative narratives about an entire religious group from US presidential candidates and others, the need for children to read, see, and hear global stories that counter and challenge such narratives is, I would argue, even greater.
By Peggy Albers, The Conversation