Storytelling in the Age of Screens

How do I tear the kids away from flashing lights and explosions and get them to sit with a book or tell a story?
05/30/2012 10:39 am ET Updated Jul 30, 2012

... Please! Just Five More Minutes!
... We're almost done.
... We just need to finish this level!

Sound familiar?

Though there are many different parenting styles, many of us seem to share one common, overriding concern: how to limit the addictive influence video games can hold on our children's lives.

My kids and their friends call me the "Story Dad," because I love telling stories with my two sons and their buddies. I'm a big believer in the power of storytelling to strengthen bonds between parents and children, to excite imagination and learning and to bridge gaps between cultures, languages and traditions.

But even my faith in storytelling sometimes falters when I contemplate competing against video games -- the ultimate Pied Piper. How do I tear the kids away from flashing lights and explosions and get them to sit with a book or tell a story?

Maybe the answer is storytelling and video games don't need to compete, but can exist side by side in children's lives. The trick is to strive for balance.

Let's start with a little context. First, don't think of video games as the bad guy. After all, several commentators have made the case that video games are good for kids, improving, for example, a child's dexterity and decision making. The Smithsonian American Art Museum even premiered recently an exhibition that will soon tour the country called The Art of Video Games, which explores the forty-year evolution of video games as an artistic medium.

In other words, video games do have their place, and when played in moderation, non-violent video games allow kids to have needed downtime from their sometimes stressful, often overscheduled lives. But as parents know, video gaming is a passive activity, where the narrative and graphics are already created for, and projected to, the player.

By contrast, in terms of instilling creativity, self-reflection and values, storytelling wins hands down.

Storytelling is an active art where children conjure up their own mental images as a story appears and unfolds, stimulating creative thought and play. Along with acting, drawing, reading and playing a musical instrument, storytelling provides kids with the creative outlets they need and crave.

And that's the key to bringing storytelling into kid's lives. Because everyone -- toddlers, kids, teens, and adults -- loves a good story. It's this innate need you can rely on.

When I'm telling a story to a group of children, I know I have my audience hooked when I look into their faces and see their mouths open in wonder, attention fixed on my every word. The need for stories is in our DNA, and kids are mesmerized by a good story, no matter how young or old they are.

Once you begin a storytelling tradition in your family, you'll find that in every adolescent or teen there exists a youngster who grew up loving stories. Kids -- no matter how technologically sophisticated or jaded by gaming and social media -- long to be that impressionable child again, enthralled by one of your stories. Storytelling, in fact, becomes a means by which children can temporarily escape the pressures of growing up.

Finally, along with relying on your child's natural love of story, look for effective times for storytelling bedtime after the lights are turned off, on shared walks with the dog, after a tiring day at school, during long car rides... and start a routine of telling stories during those special moments. Forming good habits, as we all know, is the best way to reduce unwanted ones.

And be encouraged. I'm beginning to see evidence of video game fatigue in my kids and their friends. Could it be that even they've become numbed by the hours of time spent pushing buttons and joysticks? As their infatuation with video games starts to wane, they're actually re-discovering simple pleasures -- shooting baskets, imagination play, card and board games and yes, storytelling.

One day soon, don't be surprised to hear your child say, "I'm bored playing videos. Could you tell me a story instead?"

John McCormick and his sons William and Connor are the authors of "Dad, Tell Me A Story," How to Revive the Tradition of Storytelling with Your Children (Nicasio Press 2010). For more information about family storytelling, visit the authors' website and blog at, or read their regular posts on The Parent Network at

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