David Sewell McCann suggests that the go-to parenting tip of our time should be speaking to children in a language they understand: the language of stories.
He left his sneakers out in the rain again. She will not leave her sister alone. He is terrified of spiders. She refuses to go to her annual checkup with the doctor. This is all normal everyday stuff for Moms and Dads everywhere. Fears, frustrations, anxieties, excitements, habits and dynamics and—as parents—we intervene. For Dads this can often be a lecture. We reason with our children. We lay out the ‘reality’ that most spiders are not dangerous and that in fact, they are vital in the ecosystem. We explain that their sister is much smaller and that hitting them is never OK— especially with something hard like a fisher price telephone. We give them a very reasonable argument for changing their behavior, and sometimes they nod their heads and agree: they will try harder, they won’t do it again, they won’t be afraid next time, they will do what you ask. But seldom does anything change. This rarely even works with adults, let’s face it. Still afraid of speaking publicly? Lost the keys again? Responding defensively to constructive criticism?
There is an alternative parenting technique that is hardly new. It has been used since our species could speak, and it is not only effective, it is delightful: Storytelling. We are wired for it—literally. The neuroscience is conclusive—we use stories to build our realities and make sense of them. Think about your day—how much of what you said today, was a story? Most of it? All of it? When your spouse asked you about your day, your answer was a story. When your friend asked about the goings on in Syria or Boulder or Kenya, your answer was a story. So within the context of parenting—how is this not the go-to parenting tool of our time? Quite simply: fear. We are afraid we won’t know what story to tell. We are afraid we will tell a boring or bad story. We are afraid our children will screw up their faces and say, “that was dumb”. To these fears, I say “there was once a man who was afraid to talk. He was worried about what it would sound like—would he growl? Would he hoot? Would he squawk? But then, one day he saw that a child was about to fall into a trap he himself made to catch coyotes. The child was too far away to reach so he finally called out, “Stop”. The child stopped. The child was fine—and this was because of what he had spoken.” So that was a story. The intention was to get you to get past your fear, reframe storytelling, and then motivate you to open your mouth and speak. Is your child afraid of the dark? Tell them a story about a mouse who has the same fear and then—because darkness is a part of life—he gets over it. Just make it up and keep talking until the story it over. It’s that simple. It doesn’t need to be profound or even insightful. You just need to show your child that you care enough to try. And you will be amazed. Sometimes a single story can make all the difference. Bullying? Tell a story. Moving to a new home? Tell a story. Dog is going to be put to sleep? Tell a story. Explain later, if you have to—but understand that through storytelling, you are speaking their language. The language of dreams. The language of possibility. Plus it is a lot of fun.