Friday, November 25, 2016

The Power of story telling

 My mom could go into a room full of chaos. “Once upon a time..” she would start in a steady calm voice.

It wouldn’t be long before everyone in the room was hanging on her every word; whatever they had been in a snit about a moment ago was forgotten.
She would then take her audience on a magical journey with a story that she often made up as she went. If it were a classic tale, you could count on her to take dramatic liberties. I don’t believe she told any story quite the same way twice. In her kindergarten classroom she would have her students shut their eyes as she told her tales.
"Use your imagination", she would tell them. "I am thinking of a big black dog, he has 2 floppy ears. He also has 2 tails and 3 eyes!"

One distinct recollection of a time when mom’s storytelling saved the day comes to mind. My younger daughter Alana had several friends spending the night. In one of my bigger lapses in good “mommy judgement” I had rented a movie that I thought they would all enjoy. It turned out to be fairly dark and scary (always pre-screen, don’t rely on faulty memory of what may or may not be appropriate.) One of the girls started to cry and some of the other girls started to get sad and upset. A few of them wanted to stop the movie, but of course most of the others wanted to keep watching. The situation seemed like it could go downhill quickly. Fortunately my mom was visiting. She took control, turned off the movie and started to tell stories. These weren’t toddlers; they must have been about ten. They sat raptly listening to story after story. The evening was saved.

Books are wonderful too, but in truth, they also are not quite the same as a story. A story is yours to tweak as you please. Stories are powerful mediums for working through issues. Folks who have asked me for parenting advice over the years know that using stories is a favorite tool. For as long as I can remember I have been counseling parents to create a fictional child with a similar name. Talk about what that parallel child has been going through. This tends to be a very non threatening way to talk about all sorts of issues. Once upon a time there was a little girl who had an “owie” ear. The doctor had given her some medicine to make it better, but when she tried the medicine it tasted yucky.”....

Once upon a time there was a little boy who didn’t like to stay in bed……

Once upon a time there was a little girl who didn’t want to go to school...

Once upon a time there was a little boy who liked to put pieces of cheese in his nose….

These stories are great ways to launch into a dialogue about all sorts of positive and/or negative ways that the protagonist can deal with  a variety of situations. This is an excellent problem solving technique.

When I was working on this post, I mentioned the storytelling theme to one of the wise mamas in my life. She immediately referred to these as “Annie Stories”. It turns out that back in 1988 this was quite the thing, and there was a book about how to use this method:

I use storytelling at work on a regular basis. Many of our savvy parents who know that they have a “shot phobic” patient on their hands, will make sure that they schedule the visit when Josie and I are both there. Josie is my amazing medical assistant who has been my ‘right hand’ at the office for many years.
I can’t even count how many times I have been called into an exam room where a crying, or cowering child is terrified of a “dreaded shot”.... I start my story:

“Once upon a time there was a patient who was so big. He played football for his high school. He was bigger than me, he was probably bigger than the grown up in your house, he was really big...and he was really scared of getting shots." At this point 90% of the kids are now still and listening to me talk. Yes,  they might be huddled on their parents lap, or on the floor under the chair. They are probably not making eye contact, but I have their attention.

“He wasn’t afraid of getting bumped around on the football field but he hated shots. He was so scared of them that he would try to hide. He tried to hide inside the garbage can, but he wouldn't fit..”   Now 99% are listening and some are almost laughing.

From here I am able to start a dialogue with them about why we are giving the shot. “It is magic protection so that if certain germs get inside of your body, you won’t get sick.” We talk about the fact that we wish there was a less yucky way to get the protection and that it is really normal for lots of people to be scared of shots. We talk about the fact that being brave is trying hard to hold still and it is still really okay to cry and yell if they need to. As soon as they are ready, Josie (the best shot giver in the country) has already gotten it done.

It all starts by engaging them with a story.

Not everything has to have a purpose. Sometimes stories are just for fun

If I happen to be taking a  walk outside and see something unusual such as  a pair of shoes sitting by themselves on a street corner, I can’t help to think to myself. Here is a story. How did those shoes get there? Take turns telling the same story. Families can have a wonderful time creating a collaborative tale.
Another wise Mama tells me that she used to have her kids give her three things that they wanted the story to include; perhaps a special name or a certain feeling.

Our kids these days are both blessed and cursed with the enormous choices of digital wonders. I am not opposed to limited use of regulated tech time, but it should not be in place of plain old imagination.

Recent studies show that books and stories started young have a real impact on brain development:


This Black Friday, as people run around to shop for all kinds of new technological marvels, don’t forget to “power down” and be thankful for the magic moments that you capture as you snuggle with your kids and simply tell a story. "Once upon a time......

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