It’s 8:00pm, and the lights should be out by 8:30. Kids are fumbling into their pajamas, squirrely as usual. They crash into the bathroom to fight over the sink. Once teeth are brushed, you are ready for lights out. They beg, “tell me a story!” You reach for the stack of illustrated literature, and before you can open a book they say “no, Mama, make up a story!”
Ugh. More work for Mama’s tired brain. Look at this beautifully bound book, you think. Someone has already gone through a lot of effort and time to create this masterpiece. I will let the author do the storytelling. But no, they want an original.
“Once upon a time…” You scan the room. “Someone did not put away their pants.” This is going nowhere fast, you think to yourself. I don’t know what to say.
Yet your audience is riveted. They could care less where the inspiration is coming from. They are in the throes of creation, where every good thing begins.
This is a moment of decision. You must set aside all personal critique, and cast your imagination into the sea of possibilities. You can choose to enter the adventure, or dismiss it for another day. But if you enter, you will most likely find children with bated breath, fully engaged, and loving the story you invent, no matter how awful it truly was.
Children love a good story. Of course children love stories read to them. Reading a good book to a child is one of the most precious, life giving things a parent can do. And yet it is often the made-up tales, half baked and happened upon by tired parents that children love most.
“Mama, tell me a story,” children cry. They ache for the tales of ancestry, where you impart your legacy of failures and successes. They long for the fables that tie your wisdom to memory. They know the human adventure entails stories, and they know they are meant hear yours.
I think we all intrinsically know a good story when we hear one. We all have stories passed on to us, through good books, but also through conversation. The art of conversation is developed and honed in storytelling. These stories are living and breathing beyond a page, in timeless oral tradition.
Your story need not be perfect, but if you want to enter the tradition that knits together communities and deepens familial bonds, then these stories must be told by you. If you find yourself ready to take the plunge, here are some simple solutions to storytelling.
Raid the Classics
Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, and Goldilocks are waiting to be reinvented. Put your kids into these tales. Make them the hero, the villain, or the sidekick. You can tell the story just as it always was, but with new names, or your can change it up a little. Give them superpowers, or modernize the story by putting it in their neighborhood or school.
Use the pattern
Every story has a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning introduces the characters and world. The middle creates all the drama, tension, and problems. And the end is the solution. One writer once said “your job as a storyteller is to make your character as miserable as possible.” Simply put, throw all kinds of problems and challenges at your character. And when you are certain that things can’t get worse, it’s time for the ending. Find a solution, be it miracle or ingenuity of your character, they will succeed, conquer the villain, or save the day.
You have helpers
If you are making up a story, then realize you are not alone. You will need to give your kids a few prompts, but they are creative beyond belief, and if you throw the task at them, they will rise to the occasion. If you are stuck in your story, and you don’t know what to do next, make it your kids job to come up with something! Even if their idea isn’t going to take you where you wish, you at least have a moment to think of your next step while they throw out some thoughts. They are in this story with you, and they probably put you on spot, so they are responsible to make this happen too.
Your life is full of stories
If you cannot think of made-up story then tap into your past. Your life history is full of little memories that your children will find more precious than you can believe. They love to connect with you, and what better way than telling of your own life? My children especially love it when I share about my childhood. Unfortunately my memory isn’t what it used to be, but I still have a few tales that are embedded in my brain from being a kid, and they don’t mind hearing those stories on repeat.
Tell the family history
Grandpa, grandma, aunts and uncles, share your family tales. These connect your children to their roots. There is reason why people love to look up their family tree and share their ancestry. They want to know where they come from. It brings clarity to their present, and inspires their future.
They know the human adventure entails stories, and they know they are meant hear yours.
You might only jump into storytelling once in a while, but do jump in. Your children will cherish it, and be formed by it. Our world is full of professional storytellers, whether film director, author, or animator. But these will never hold a candle to the story you tell after you hear that precious request, “Mama, tell me a story.”