The Art of Telling Bedtime Stories, Part 1

A lot of parents, probably the majority, sit down to read bed-time stories to their children with a sort of dread. They know this is something they’re “supposed to do,” but they also feel uncomfortable with it; they don’t know what to say or how. And so they buy a book of bedtime stories and try to convince themselves that it will solve their problem.

The story books don’t really fix the problem, however. Some of them will be stories the parent feels funny about reading – a kind of half-understood feeling that something’s a bit off about them – but for which they have no alternative. And so they keep reading, reasoning that the stories in the book are old, and so they must be good. They also feel they have no better alternative, not knowing how to find one and not feeling confident enough to create one.

The really central thing, however, is this: Even if the stories in the books were perfect, reading bedtime stories is a mistake all by itself. Bedtime stories are to be told, not read.

More than that, they are to be told differently for each occasion and for each child.

Except for those few who had an adult who knew how to tell children’s stories (usually an experienced parent, grandparent, or a parent with a strong artistic streak) most parents are uncomfortable improvising with stories, or are plainly terrified of doing so. This is understandable, given the repressive forces of our world, but it’s also something we need to get past, if we’re to make bedtime a blessing for our children.

And so I’ll go through some of the fundamentals of this art.

Lesson Number 1: Feeling And Expressing Love

Let’s begin with two quotes, the first from Mozart and the second from John, the friend of Jesus (aka, John the Apostle):

Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius.

Love casts out fear.

However angry, frustrated or tired we may be at bedtime – and every real parent has felt all of these, sometimes in colorful combinations – beneath it all we still love our children. And so our first job is to make that love large in our minds. Once we feel our primal desire to bless our children, the rest of this will come far more easily.

And on the really rough night when you’re just not ready to feel that desire, either forget story time or hand it off to the other parent. There’s nothing wrong with telling children that you’re too tired of frustrated to tell them stories that night. In nine cases out of ten they’ll already know you’re upset, and being honest about it (provided you can express it calmly enough) can help a lot with your understandings of each other.

But if you can feel a deep desire to bless your children, your story telling becomes a vehicle for it, and your stories will get much, much better… even if their improvement begins rather sloppily and with difficulty.

Please don’t imagine that the art of story telling is one that will just leap into place once you’re inspired. As with any artistic discipline, it arrives piece by piece.

Once you feel love, however, you’ll also find it easier to relax and have fun with your children while telling them stories.

Telling bedtime stories, when it goes properly, is joyful improvisation. You want to see the big picture, find ways to adapt your stories to it, and target your delivery to the specific needs of your child (or children).

Is that a tall order? Yes, of course it is, but if you simply start swinging at that target, you’ll find that you very often hit it.

Lesson Number 2: There Is No Perfect

Once we humans feel inadequate to something, we tend (strongly) to look for every slight misstep we make, and to treat each as a major blunder. Because of all this, we are likely (understandably) to evade the thing altogether, knowing that it will be painful to us.

I’d like you to know two things about this:

  1. The whole thing is out of proportion. Addressing things that way, we negate credit for any amount of good work by the mere presence of a minor error. That’s wildly out of balance and a horrible thing to do to one’s self, but people do it all the time. I won’t take time to delve into it here, but this is something we need very badly to get past. If you notice yourself doing it, please force yourself to stop; then force yourself to look at something good you’ve done.
  2. You often won’t have enough information to know which part of the story-telling exercise is working and which isn’t. You can imagine how badly you’ve done of course (and like I say, humans are very good at this), but you simply won’t have enough information to really know. The beneficial effects of your stories will occur inside other humans, and very young ones at that. They firstly won’t understand the significance of what they feel, and wouldn’t have the skills or vocabulary to explain it in any case.

And so the whole exercise in telling bedtime stories is one that will give you partial feedback. A lot of the good seeds you plant will remain invisible to you for a long time. Yes, there will be wonderful moments when you see your child’s face light up – and they really are magnificent – but there will also be times when you do a splendid job but see no outward signs. You must proceed in faith all the same.

More next time.


Paul Rosenberg