Why Storytelling is Way Better than Lecturing your Kids

storytelling photo by elisa riedel

David Sewell McCann suggests that the go-to parenting tip of our time should be speaking to children in a language they understand: the language of stories. 

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He left his sneakers out in the rain again. She will not leave her sister alone. He is terrified of spiders. She refuses to go to her annual checkup with the doctor. This is all normal everyday stuff for Moms and Dads everywhere. Fears, frustrations, anxieties, excitements, habits and dynamics and—as parents—we intervene.

For Dads this can often be a lecture. We reason with our children. We lay out the ‘reality’ that most spiders are not dangerous and that in fact, they are vital in the ecosystem. We explain that their sister is much smaller and that hitting them is never OK— especially with something hard like a fisher price telephone. We give them a very reasonable argument for changing their behavior, and sometimes they nod their heads and agree:  they will try harder, they won’t do it again, they won’t be afraid next time, they will do what you ask.

But seldom does anything change. This rarely even works with adults, let’s face it. Still afraid of speaking publicly?  Lost the keys again? Responding defensively to constructive criticism?

♦◊♦

There is an alternative parenting technique that is hardly new.  It has been used since our species could speak, and it is not only effective, it is delightful:  Storytelling. We are wired for it—literally. The neuroscience is conclusive—we use stories to build our realities and make sense of them. Think about your day—how much of what you said today, was a story?  Most of it?  All of it?  When your spouse asked you about your day, your answer was a story.  When your friend asked about the goings on in Syria or Boulder or Kenya, your answer was a story.

So within the context of parenting—how is this not the go-to parenting tool of our time? Quite simply: fear. We are afraid we won’t know what story to tell. We are afraid we will tell a boring or bad story. We are afraid our children will screw up their faces and say, “that was dumb”.

To these fears, I say “there was once a man who was afraid to talk. He was worried about what it would sound like—would he growl?  Would he hoot?  Would he squawk?  But then, one day he saw that a child was about to fall into a trap he himself made to catch coyotes. The child was too far away to reach so he finally called out, “Stop”. The child stopped. The child was fine—and this was because of what he had spoken.”

So that was a story. The intention was to get you to get past your fear, reframe storytelling, and then motivate you to open your mouth and speak. Is your child afraid of the dark? Tell them a story about a mouse who has the same fear and then—because darkness is a part of life—he gets over it.  Just make it up and keep talking until the story it over. It’s that simple. It doesn’t need to be profound or even insightful. You just need to show your child that you care enough to try.

And you will be amazed. Sometimes a single story can make all the difference. Bullying? Tell a story. Moving to a new home? Tell a story. Dog is going to be put to sleep? Tell a story. Explain later, if you have to—but understand that through storytelling, you are speaking their language. The language of dreams. The language of possibility. Plus it is a lot of fun.
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photo: elisariedel / flickr

About David Sewell McCann

David Sewell McCann found storytelling to be so powerful and effective, he became a full-time storyteller. He tell stories to thousands of children every day, world wide through his website www.sparklestories.com. His theory about the power of storytelling has found evidence in the many, many emails he’s received from parents over they years, describing how their ‘sensitive children’ can relax and feel reassured when they listen to Sparkle’s stories. For more storytelling instruction, go to the blog.

Comments

  1. Hi David

    I’m so glad to read your post and that you mention that a story doesn’t have to be overwhelming. It’s so veyr true. A story can be just as brief and simple as you suggest, even anecdotal, while still hugely powerful.

    One reason that teaching our children through story is so meaningful, is that it conveys family values better than admonitions. Another is that children don’t really hear what we say in the midst of a fight with a sibling or in a tantrum. Adressing the behavior later, through story, allows the child to really absorb the teaching through their imagination.

    Stories about family, about relatives who have passed away, challenges faced and overcome in the past, are wonderful too. These stories help the child develop their sense of identity and belonging, and a more profound resilience in life.

    I’m going to check your site out for inspiration and stories. You may find something of interest in the e-booklet that’s available on my website (it’s free), where I offer three practices for dads to connect with their children, one of which is storytelling.

    All the best
    Miki

  2. hi David, i would like to know how i can tell my little one a story on bullying .. how children can overcome bullying in their school.

    thanks
    prats

    • Hi Prats – we have some stories you could use. You can email me at david@sparklestories.com and I’d be happy to send one. Or better yet – you could tell a story using animals – it gives the hot topic a little distance and lets the imagination flow more freely. Give room for empathy for all three parties – the bully, the bullied and the witnesses. All three need to be a part of any story. If your child can recognize that all three are connected first, then it will be easier end a dynamic and begin something new.

    • It’s hard to use stories as educational tools when we refuse to read them in the first place. It’s hard to have a bullet belt full of stories, or a series of templates where we can rearrange characters for immediate purposes, when the canon of stories in our consciousness is limited to episodes of Project Runway and Monday Night Football.

  3. I wrote a blog post on using stories to work with children! We are on the same page!

    http://askharvardmama.com/2013/09/11/healing-stories-for-challenging-behavior/

  4. A variation on this technique is to draw a cartoon panel of the story with colored pens or crayons or whatever. Doesn’t have to be art, just recognizable. Then tell the story and point to each cell in the cartoon panel as you get to that part in the story. The kid can then easily “read” the cartoon panel to retell themselves the story when you’re not there.

    I did this to tell the story of a family move where I left first and didn’t see my wife and our son for three weeks and they traveling by a different route for a week before we all met up at our new place. Too complicated for a young child to remember all the details, but with the visual story to refer to they were able to be comfortable with it – in particular because it ended with us all meeting up again someplace they knew about. This also allowed the parent they were with to retell the story while following along with the picture again.

    I ended up doing this for simpler trips where I was leaving and including the days of the week on the panel so they could ask what day it was and know where I was and what I was doing (“flying on an airplane!” “riding a TRAIN!” etc :-)).

    peace

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  1. […] David Sewall McCann suggests that the go-to parenting tip of our time should be speaking to children in a language they understand: the language of stories.  […]

  2. […] enjoyed this article penned by a dad who’s learned an alternative to lecturing children that’s more lasting […]

  3. […] Sewell McCann’s recent article, Why Storytelling is Way Better than Lecturing your Kids, argues exactly what the title says. A story is a more effective lesson than a lecture. Quite […]

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