One day when my son was 4 years old, I reminded him of something that happened the year before. To me it was just a memory, but for him it was a delightful story. And he wanted to hear it told over and over as if it were a Walt Disney movie. And so I began, "This is the true story about the time we visited the alligator farm in Florida and a huge alligator took off with your purple car."
Three years later, when my son was crying because he lost his favorite playing cards, I saw new potential in the alligator story. If I used it carefully it could be a teaching tool - especially powerful because it is drawn from his life.
"Peter," I said, "remember the day you lost your purple car because the alligator ate it?"
"Yes," he said, wiping his tears away. I could see the expression that said, 'Oh boy, my story.'
"It all started like this," I continued. "You climbed up to the fence so you could get a better look at a huge alligator. The car dropped out of your hand as you held onto the top bar. We knew the car was gone, and you cried. You lost something special."
Then I reminded him about what happened next. "The alligator grabbed it, and people all around us shouted, 'Help. The alligator has the boy's car.' Everyone wanted to help. A park ranger went into the pen with a big stick, thumped it on the ground and chased after the alligator."
Yes, the images were clear. Peter could now "remember" how he became entranced by the moving gator that had, only moments earlier, looked like an unreal statue.
"How exciting it was to see the alligator come to life," I reminded Peter. "And even though the gator took the car into the water and we heard a loud crunch, you didn't mind that the car was being eaten. What had started as a disaster became an adventure."
I asked Peter if losing his cards might be another opportunity for adventure. "I think you can do something wonderful now, even though the cards are missing."
Peter thought about it. He looked around and decided, "I can make my own cards." What an idea. We got out heavy paper, scissors, and markers. He made beautiful cards.
An adventure had begun.
Ever since then, stories have taken on a whole new meaning in our family. We repeat life stories or tell made-up stories to suit every occasion. And whenever a story begins, there is instant attention.
Recently I was driving Peter and his sister to school. They were squabbling in the back seat. So I began, "Once upon a time..." The back seat grew very quiet. And the story that came to me was a story about a mother dog whose puppies were always fighting. She said, "Stop that you two, stop that you two," and repeated it so many times she froze into a statue. The mom couldn't move. But the broken record inside her kept repeating, "Stop that you two" over and over again.
Then the puppies had to try and figure out how to help their mother come back to life. They tried making promises. They fought over how to help. Finally, they really and truly made peace with each other, and the dog was released from being a statue so she could be their mother again.
Such personalized stories seemed to help my children understand new options for behavior. So I hunted up a local storytelling group to find out more. Since then I've learned there is a large movement of people who are reviving the art of storytelling because it offers rich material for the imagination. Stories can help children understand themselves. They offer the opportunity for exploring options and opening up creative potential. And life stories give children a wonderful sense of validation.
So now, I ask my kids to add to our stories. We explore different endings. And when they are really sad, there is always a story that will help.
"I like stories because it's like drawing in your mind with words," says Peter, who is now 8. "You can see it your own way." His favorite story is the one that begins, "When you were 3, an alligator ate your purple car."
Recently, Peter was fighting with his sister. All I had to say was "Stop that you two," and they began to chant, "Stop that you two, stop that you two." What a wondrous truth there is in stories.