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Stories: The emotional fabric of society

Dr Garth Japhet is the founder and chief executive of Heartlines, a value-based media campaign and printed resource organisation. Heartlines has developed a series of books titled ‘Stories That Talk’, which assist educators and caregivers in encouraging early literacy skills and learning around values. Sally Mills (Nal'ibali networks and communications coordinator) and Japhet explore the role of stories in helping children cope, and understand difficulties and negative experiences:

For all children, and indeed adults too, stories are not limited to books, radio drama and other modern media. They are, in fact, the fabric of our lives – how we understand ourselves, our worlds and those around us. They have the power to heal, to teach, to inspire and ultimately shape our world view. This is especially true for young children, who, in their early years, drink in the stories they hear as they start to piece together their identities and places in the world.

Dr Garth Japhet doesn’t just know this; he is an expert in using stories to motivate and shape value-based behavioural change in South African communities. Most recently, he has been using children’s storybooks as an avenue to drive positive character development in the next generation.

“The role of story over generations and since time immemorial in shaping the way children see the world has been central and there is good neurobiology behind why the impact is so profound.  Boiled down, it’s because emotions shift behaviour and stories connect with emotions, facts don’t,” says Japhet.

Facts stimulate only that part of the brain that is related to the content, whereas stories evoke a full brain experience.  This in turn leads to embedding habits and behaviour, he explains.

But not all stories are equipped to bring about this kind of moral learning. They need to resonate with the child, with his or her personal experiences; they need to challenge the listener towards their better selves and they also need to evoke emotion. “If I haven’t been touched by a story, I’m unlikely to want to engage with it,” says Japhet.

Where will parents find these stories? Well, they are not the sugarcoated stories of the modern consumer era, produced by marketers. Parents and caregivers need to look deeper by visiting libraries or local bookshops to authors whose books reflect their children’s environments and whose stories carry real messages.

“There are stories all around children which we can’t prevent them from hearing – stories about the real world where people do die, get shot or get sick, and if the stories we engage our children with don’t allow us to interrogate that we can’t teach children effective ways to handle these situations and emotions,” Japhet concludes.

To find out more on how to use stories to help children cope, click here

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