Last week I was trying to help my 9-year-old son set up his xbox for a new game. He was frustrated, and wouldn’t accept my help – but neither could he fix the issue himself. That lunchtime I told him and his brother a story. It went like this: ‘Once upon a time the RNLI lifeboat was called out to rescue a woman who was drowning. When they arrived she said “go away I don’t want your help” so they were unable to help her’’. My son got the message immediately and despite being quite defensive about it, we all discussed the story together. Why didn’t the woman want to accept help? How might the lifeboat volunteers have felt? The next time my son needed help with IT, he said: ‘thanks for trying to help Mum. I know how hard it is when you try to help people and they are rude to you’. This simple story was far more effective in changing his behaviour than any lectures about politeness or threats of consequences for rudeness.
What stories do you tell your children or loved ones? Are they from books written by others, true stories about your own life, metaphors, parables or ancient stories of your own culture? Stories are a very powerful way of communicating and are an extremely useful parenting tool. All cultures and peoples use them to teach, guide and entertain. Fairy tales tell children difficult truths about the world around them, e.g. not all adults are safe, in a way which the child will remember and will learn from at one remove from reality, enabling them to process this difficult information. Stories have been used for centuries to teach about safety – Peter and the Wolf is a classic example.
An entertaining story can be heard and received, in situations where a lecture or direct talk would not be listened to. Jesus used stories constantly to communicate with people whose hearts were hard. He knew that his story, often humorous or entertaining, would be received and remembered far more readily than a serious lecture on righteous living.
So how can we intentionally use stories to help us with our parenting, or to help us care for our loved ones? There are so many ways, but below are just a few we have found useful.
Some things are just too painful to talk about directly. Sometimes a child may not fully remember the actual event that caused them pain. In this situation, a story can really help to bring emotional healing. Our oldest boy spent years eating every meal at top speed, then instantly demanding more. Teaching him about sensible eating had no effect. He was doing this because of a very deep fear of there not being enough food, which was completely understandable as his birth family did not feed him enough. That fear wasn’t fading away with time. I told him a story about 2 chicks in a nest whose mother only ever brought them 1 caterpillar to eat, which wasn’t enough for both of them. Eventually the chicks moved to a different nest where there was always enough food, but the chicks were still afraid and still fought each other for the food. His response: ‘the mother bird was selfish because she ate the caterpillars herself’. He instantly understood what the story was really about and was able to tell me his feelings about his birth mother without directly talking about her. He then had a good cry about it. Two weeks later he spontaneously decided that he didn’t always need seconds of everything and stopped gobbling his food. The story enabled him to understand why he was behaving like he did and to start to let go of all that emotional pain from the past. We find that the more emotionally intense the subject is, the more allegorical the story needs to be. A child who has been left hungry experiences enormous emotional pain – so the story needed to be about a chick in a nest rather than a child in a home. Something less emotionally intense, for instance an argument with another child in the playground, may not need to be an allegory.
For very young children, allegorical stories may or may not work. It may be better to take two of their dolls or teddies and act out the story using them. You could play with the story too. Your child or loved one could change the ending or reverse the roles of the characters. Finally, you may need to tell them the story more than once. As children change with growth they may need to go back and revisit these stories, so that they can process them again with their new more mature understanding.
Stories for joyful moments of connection with your child or loved one
When my brother was very small, we were walking through some woods together. I made up a story about the ‘bla bla’ monkey as we walked. The ‘bla bla’ monkey was very cheeky, liked to swing through the trees, got into all sorts of trouble….and the story ended with the monkey saying ‘bla bla’ really loud and very suddenly. Harry loved it and giggled….so the next day I made up another story about the antics of the bla bla monkey, who again got into trouble, and again the story ended with ‘bla bla’. We were both gripped by this story telling because when I started the story, I didn’t know myself how I was going to end it. I would be telling him the story, looking straight into his eyes, he would be looking straight back at me, both of us enthralled in the drama of the story, waiting for the suspense to be broken by the words ‘bla bla’. It was a wonderfully exciting and dramatic way to connect with each other and enjoy being together.
Made up stories don’t have to be long, brilliant, or even particularly good. In my experience children just seem to love having stories made up for them, or joining in with the story-making themselves. Our children, now aged 9 and 11, really enjoy making up stories at mealtimes. One of us starts with the first sentence, and the person to the left makes up the next, and so on. We also have ‘story cubes’ with symbols on them, which can be rolled like dice and the symbols used to prompt the creation of a story.
Telling the story of your day can really help your children reconnect with you after their day at school, especially if this involves humour. I often say ‘well…when you were at school doing exciting maths and PE, guess what I was doing…hoovering…then I went to buy chicken food but yet again I forgot I needed cash…!’. We have found that even seemingly small events that we think are quite insignificant seem fascinating to our children: chickens cheekily pecking at the window, cats climbing into clothes drawers, a fox spotted in a field.
Real life stories about your memories together as a family are also wonderful for building connection and relationship. ‘Remember when we saw a hedgehog outside the dining room window at breakfast time….remember when you learnt to ride your bike in one day and we were both so excited about it….remember when you went on camp for the first time…remember when you had that pirate ship birthday cake’. Everyone remembers together, and that incredibly special intangible feeling of being family grows just a little bit more. For really young children, even babies, telling the story of their day to them can help them settle down at bedtime. For all of us, remembering together can bring joy and connection even on difficult days. You don’t have to be an expert to tell stories. You just have to have a beginning, middle and ending…and have fun in the process.
Stories for teaching and guidance
Remember when the prophet Nathan was faced with the immensely difficult challenge of confronting King David with his acts of murder and adultery. How did he do this? He told a story which went straight to King David’s heart. Jesus told stories about vineyards and workers to the hard hearted Jewish leaders for the same reason. When we need to teach, guide or correct our children or loved ones without being confrontational, a story is a very useful tool. True stories from our own or other people’s lives are probably the most effective and help the child to know that they are not alone in their struggles and that grown-ups also face challenges.
One morning, our boys and I witnessed a small domestic incident at our local park, where a couple were having an argument and the man was being threatening and swearing towards his girlfriend. After they had gone, we sat down and talked about it. We all agreed that the man had behaved very badly, that what he had done was wrong, that he was a bad person, and that seemed to the boys to be the end of the story. However I wanted to teach them about what salvation actually looks like in real life. So I told them the story of Shane Sutton, the man held in the most secure prison unit possible because he was so violent and showed no remorse at all. He came to faith on an Alpha course and was totally transformed as a result. The boys understood that no one is beyond God’s reach, that their final response to the incident they saw didn’t need to be fear.
My story of being jealous of my older sister’s drawing ability and so giving up drawing myself as a child doesn’t need a moral lecture at the end – the story is enough in itself to make the point. Jesus’ story of the speck in one eye and the plank in the other can also guide and correct whilst causing a giggle of amusement. The story of Dunkirk helped our oldest son to keep persevering at a difficult football team which currently loses every single match – he got the message that failure is an opportunity to learn rather than an end in itself. There is really no end to the possibilities of stories to guide. One note of caution though. Let the story do the work itself rather than adding on lectures or explanations yourself at the end. The hearer will get the point, even if not right away. Try to make each story about one particular issue only, and if you can try to make them amusing.
So be encouraged. You can use stories to heal, connect and guide your child or loved one without needing to be an author or gifted storyteller. Ordinary people like you and me can add storytelling to their parenting toolbox and as a result bless the people we love and care for.