My little girl tells stories wherever she goes. She tells them to her dolls alone in her room, lays them out with friends on playdates, and whispers them under her breath in the car. I think that for a 4-year-old, this is pretty standard.
My husband and I try to meet her stories with more stories of our own, and together we all enjoy slipping into the Land of Make Believe whenever possible (even though she’s never seen Fred Rogers change his shoes in her life).
Before bed, with lights out, I like to make up stories about a tiny little girl named Sweet Pea who lives in the pocket of a boy named Charlie. My husband is known for his “Scruffy Stories,” about his childhood cat whose exploits have grown in his imagination over the years to become super-feline feats. Also, since our daughter doesn’t watch movies yet, repackaged films are always in play, as are biographical stories from our own childhood and, of course, good old-fashioned fairy tales.
For our family, oral stories are a terrific way to wind down for sleep or make a plane ride go a little faster. They are also excellent tools for moving our child through power struggles in ways that are at once calming and wholly distracting. At age 3, the conflict over brushing my daughter's extensive curls became much easier when I would throw out the words, “Did I ever tell you about the time ...” By now, I don’t even think she’s all that distracted from what she's upset about as much as she is willing to trade it for a good story, one of her favorite things in the world.
Of course, once you open the door to a story, you have to have something to back it up. But I must say, kids are pretty forgiving about content here. A character with a fun name, some sequential events, a conflict that gets resolved, and you’re usually good to go. The small ones also really seem to appreciate stories about what their friends are doing or have done. I once got out of a Starbucks without purchasing an oh-so-coveted vanilla milk for my tired little one by telling her all about another friend who enjoyed pretending to surf in the shower with her baby brother. Go figure.
But to say that kids are accepting of whatever story you can manage doesn’t really do the art of storytelling justice. I recently read a wonderful book that opened my eyes to a whole new world of therapeutic storytelling. In Susan Perrow’s Healing Stories for Challenging Behaviour, I learned about the ancient art of telling stories to heal or transform a range of childhood behaviors and situations, from nightmares to sibling rivalry, biting to loss. Perrow does an incredible job of explaining the way therapeutic storytelling works and how to craft your own stories to fit your child’s changing needs. She even lists challenging issue after issue with the appropriate healing stories to help.
For example, a child suffering from a good deal of fear might be told an African tale (as many therapeutic stories are) about a boy who would be king and wore a golden crown. One day, the boy fell and broke many bones, leading to a long internment in a sick bed. Afterward, he was terrified to go outside again until his grandmother pointed out how dull his crown was getting. So, finally, he allowed her to help him into the sunlight, where his crown became brighter and brighter every day until he again looked like a boy who would someday be king.
As you can see, there is much metaphor and hidden meaning under the surface here, but a child doesn’t necessarily need to be able to name and understand all that is at play. The idea is that they can internalize the spirit and significance of the story and take from it what they need.
This leads to another huge benefit of storytelling for children—the boost it gives to their all-important imagination. Someone once asked Einstein what to do to raise a brilliant child and he answered, “Tell him fairy tales.” To make sure they got the answer right, they asked him twice and twice got the same response. Child development specialist and author, Joseph Chilton Pearce, who has written much about the way we need strong imaginations for our brains to be able to transfer information from one field to another, says, “Storytelling is the major way by which we build a metaphoric and symbolic structure.”
For my husband and me, these benefits are icing on the cake because we so treasure the close time telling stories provides us with our kids. Too, it's a tool that’s gotten us out of more than one bind.
If you’d like to begin telling more oral tales with your children, think about stories you loved as a child yourself, or interesting things that happened in your youth. These are like parental gold you can store in a mental pocket for the next fussy or impatient moment.
Also, I would highly suggest reading Perrow’s book, in which you can learn some stories for the specific moods of your children and how to craft your own tales for their future. And remember, don’t be afraid to be goofy or lame—they’ll probably be so happy to be whisked away into your imagination, they won’t even notice. Just be prepared for lots of requests for encores. You may even need a story on hand about an impatient child to try to get them to stop asking!