'They love storytelling, it's a lifetime skill'
Dairy farmer Ber Buttimer tells Ailin Quinlan about the many ways that Seanchai storytelling has benefitted her children
Ber Buttimer was busy feeding the calves at the family dairy farm in West Cork when Health and Living called to talk about her family of young 'Seanchaís'.
The Buttimers had enjoyed an unforgettable summer which saw Ber's three oldest children, Shannon (16), Muiris (9) and Kelly Ann (9) each crowned an All-Ireland champion for storytelling.
On their return from the All-Ireland Fleadh Cheoil in Drogheda, Co Louth in August, the victorious children and their delighted parents were greeted by a roaring bonfire and a crowd of 200 cheering people from their rural community of Moneyreague, a few miles from the town of Dunmanway.
Friends and neighbours were immensely proud of the three young story-tellers who, as family members looked on, had each taken first prize in their individual categories. In fact it was a win for the second year in a row for Shannon and Muiris, who successfully defended their All Ireland titles in story-telling at Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann 2019. Meanwhile sister Kelly Ann, who competed for the first time, took the top prize in the under-12 category for her story about a bad-tempered cow.
Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and fellow members of the local Comhaltas Ceoltóirí branch had all travelled to Drogheda to provide support to the trio.
"That's what made it so special; to be able to share it with their family, and then to come home to be greeted by a crowd and a bonfire and food organised by our neighbours, the Noonans," recalls Ber.
"It was overwhelming; it's something the children will never forget."
Since the age of seven or eight, the Buttimer children have been involved in everything from drama and sports to music, singing and Irish dancing - Ber's youngest child, Jack (8), has now also started storytelling:
"They're all very involved in community activities, so I'm constantly on the road," she says, adding that it was through Dunmanway Comhaltas Ceoltóirí that she first learned about the competitions in story-telling several years ago.
"We started bringing the children to the traditional storytelling competitions being run by Comhaltas. They became interested and I suggested to Shannon and Muiris that they try their hand at it.
"They're very modern kids - they have their phones and they love their technology - but at the same time they're very interested in the storytelling. It's great fun, and based in the Seanchaí tradition.
"They love the competing; the stories are funny and there's a laugh and a twist to them," says Ber, who says she finds the traditional stories, including old Eamon Kelly tales, in books and through Google.
The children practise with Ber every day and also go over the stories with their dad Tadhg.
"The benefit to them comes from standing up there in front of everyone and talking. It's a lifetime skill, to have the confidence to get up and tell a story. It makes them very articulate. They speak very well and they're very clear in what they say," she says, adding that the old stories also show her children another side to Irish life.
"A lot of the stories are based around nature and animals, and they're witty and funny."
The benefits of story-telling as practised by the Buttimer children are many - it helps children understand their own identity, build relationships and feel part of the community, believes author and clinical psychologist Dr Patrick Ryan, director of the Doctoral Programme in Clinical Psychology at the University of Limerick. It also helps counter-balance the effects of technology, he adds.
"Telling learned stories like this helps young people organise information and discriminate between different types of information - fact, fiction and emotional," he explains.
"It helps them gain an understanding of the information and of how to get information out of their heads into a public space," he says.
Storytelling also helps young people to develop their understanding of their own identity, he says. "One of the key tasks in developing your story of who you are is developing relationships with others such as family and friends.
"Stories and story traditions are how we build relationships with people," he says, adding that this is how we "solidify" our attachment to others, thus developing our own confidence in who we are.
"That's where our self-esteem comes from. What these children are doing with their mum and dad is learning the craft of storytelling which connects them to these two people and then they get the confidence to go out and talk to other people - and win awards for it.
"Then they come back home and their community gives them this fantastic affirmation about their achievements with a big crowd, a bonfire and food.
"It's all about connection with people, and the mechanism in this particular case is storytelling... That brings confidence, esteem, affirmation and a very strong sense of who they are as individuals, as people who make up a family and as a family that makes up part of the community.
"When we talk about social cohesion this is exactly what we are talking about," he says. However, he warns that the advent of technology has the power to break it.
"Technology itself is not bad, it's how it is used that matters," he says adding that while the Buttimer children enjoy tech like others, they have other things in their lives.
Ber believes the story-telling helps keep her children grounded:"I'd be fairly firm with them. I'd be a fairly grounded mother. I try to keep the kids grounded, so that when they win, we celebrate, but it doesn't go to their heads. What's emphasised to them is the work that has to go into it."
Story-telling is hugely beneficial for human beings, believes Dr Malie Coyne, clinical psychologist and lecturer at NUI Galway.
"It's part of who we are. It helps children become confident with language. It boosts their imagination and builds relationships with their parents and others around them," she says, adding that the 'message' in a story can be very 'enriching' for children:
"You can learn important life lessons through the metaphors in stories. These stories always have a lot to teach us about things that have happened before," she said.
There's another advantage too - when siblings of very different ages participate together in an activity like this, says Dr Coyne, it helps to "build bridges" between them. Ber says she encourages her children but is always honest with them about their performances.
"You give your children the dream and stand by them and guide them, but you have to be realistic about it too. I'd be very straight with the children and very direct. If they're doing something right I'll tell them, but if they're not doing it right, I'll tell them that too!"
This approach is crucial, believes psychotherapist Stella O'Malley and best-selling author of Fragile, Bully-Proof Kids and Cotton Wool Kids, who believes parents should only give praise that is "earned".
"Children have become very dependent on, and expectant of, praise and they live for the praise. They're not interested in the self-satisfaction of a job well done. However, if a parent can be more accurate around praise, it makes children search within as to whether they've done something well or not, and they're not as reliant on external validation. If you're waiting for praise all the time, you're not self-evaluating. Self- evaluating is very satisfying when you know you have done something good.
"Children who have been brought up on praise never get that feeling. Give praise when it's earned and they will learn to assess themselves."
The summer of 2019 was one the Buttimer family will never forget, but says Ber:
"They're still young. As a parent you just hope you're doing the right thing for your children. I'm not a super-mum. I'm chancing it the same as every other parent!"
For more info see Comhaltas.ie