I’d heard about this idea – to use made-up stories as a parenting technique – many times. I’d heard about how made-up stories can be really effective at teaching a child something, or coaching them through their emotions, because they appeal to a child’s imagination and playfullness. But to be honest, I’d always dragged my feet on actually trying the made-up story technique. I consider myself a creative person, but I find that simply navigating a day with young people – with all the negotiating and play-acting and selflessness that that requires – saps all the creative energy out of me. I felt I just didn’t have enough left in me at the end of the day.
When I was a kid my dad used to make up ‘Super-Keryn’ stories at my bedtime, telling me all about the adventures that my super-hero alter-ego would get up to. He did the same for my two brothers, substituting their names in the titles of their stories. It’s a fond childhood memory that we still reminisce about, and I’d always imagined that I would carry on that tradition when I had kids of my own. My dad was a fun parent, and I wanted to be that kind of parent too!
Recently I talked to Family Coach Jenny Hale about some challenges my five-year-old daughter, Alice, was having at drop-off time at school. She was very reluctant to let me go and often cried and clung to me. I was wracked with guilt when I left her like that, and wanted some strategies I could implement to support her independence. I’d also just been to a parent-teacher interview and my daughter’s teacher mentioned to me that while my daughter’s behaviour is okay for Year 1, the school would really expect this behaviour to be gone by year 2 (in a few months time). I felt anxious, and eager to do something about it. Jenny mentioned I could make up a story about a little girl who has similar struggles at school, and this time, after hearing the idea multiple times in my eight-year parenting journey, it finally stuck.
As Jenny explains, imaginative play provides a way for children to process their world, and stories tap into this space. “Through stories, kids get to look from the outside in, and can see things from another’s perspective, use their imagination to problem-solve and rehearse a number of possible responses. This equips them to make better choices next time they are confronted with a similar situation,” says Jenny.
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So that night, as I lay next to my daughter in her bed, I made up a story about ‘Lucy’ and her nervousness about school. Lucy was amazingly, very similar to Alice! She liked swimming, drawing rainbows, riding her bike, and had a big brother and a pet dog. From the first words of the story, Alice was hooked. She was listening intently and seemed to really enjoy it. The story was less than 10 minutes long, and the next night, I made up another story about Lucy, this time about how she went swimming.
The following night I was in the kitchen while my husband put Alice to bed. He read her a story, then came out of her room and said “Alice wants you …. something about a Lucy story and how you always tell her one before bed?” Seems I wasn’t the only one who thought made-up stories were a great childhood tradition, Alice did too!
Learning through imagination
Jenny believes that made-up stories work so effectively because they tap into the ways kids learn best. For example, in a made-up story kids can hold onto the moral high ground. They can tell the characters of the story what to do, and what not to do – which is much more fun than being told off yourself! In this regard, there’s also no confrontation or personal attack on a child’s dignity. Kids can see the opportunity for correction, but without feeling any shame. A made-up story also provides kids with a safe context to think about appropriate responses and positive choices, in preparation for similar situations they could imagine happening in future.
The key, Jenny reminds us, is to keep stories are fun and light. A storytelling session should be cosy and comfortable (which is why they work so well at bedtime). Storytelling shouldn’t merge into a lecture, in fact a story doesn’t always have to have a ‘teaching’ element.
I’ve since made up stories while we’ve been doing something that Alice finds difficult, like walking up a hill, and it completely takes her mind off it and puts an end to any whining. It’s also a great way to reconnect after one of us has been away from the other for a whole day.
The devoted listening, as well as the engagement and enjoyment that Alice showed so clearly while she snuggled up to me were well worth the effort it took to tap into my ancient, but still-operational, imagination that first night. And I reckon storytelling will get easier the more I do it. An improvement in Alice’s behaviour will be a great result, but the childhood memories we’re creating and the quality time we’re enjoying are the real rewards.
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