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
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
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.
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.
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.