The Art of Telling Bedtime Stories, Part 2

continued from part one

Lesson Number 3: Let The Child Guide Too

When telling bedtime stories, it’s crucial to tune in to the desires of the child, in addition to the lessons you feel he or she needs. That is, you want to give the child what they want too. Story time needs to be fun, if it’s to be effective.

Yes, you must focus on what the child needs, but you must also keep your eyes open to what the child thinks is fun… the stories he or she wants.

Sometimes a child will want you to repeat the same story day after day. And so long as you don’t see an overriding reason not to, this is fine; it may get boring for you, but it’s not boring for the child. Remember that the mere pleasure of experiencing a story is, by itself, a potent seed to plant in your child.

One of my friends, a freakishly high IQ guy, is convinced that the pleasure of discovery – the chemical and emotional rush of discovery – is what drives intelligence. I’m not certain he’s entirely correct, but I am sure there’s substance in his theory, and I think the pleasure a child gets from a good story works in a similar way. So, go ahead and repeat unless you have a reason to do otherwise.

Lesson Number 4: It Doesn’t Have To Be Heavy

Parents, myself included, tend to push the big, powerful concepts, and for legitimate reasons: we want our children to grasp the really important things. But too much “heavy” isn’t a good idea. Children are not adults and shouldn’t be treated as adults. Here’s a quote from Sarah Sidis, which, while not at all on point here, springs to my mind when thinking about not treating children as if they were adults:

So many parents I’ve seen have been completely contradictory in their approach toward their children. They treat them like babies, then spank them for not behaving like grandfathers.

Children aren’t ready for a steady diet of heavy subjects. Even a few silly stories are okay, so long as they’re non-hostile, non-confusing and non-threatening.

You’ll want to get back to potent subjects often, but not too often; don’t overload your child/children.

Lesson Number 5: Get More Serious With Older Children

When your children are older, you can leave off children’s books and stories, moving on to adult books. But what you need to do in these cases is to edit the books as you read them aloud.

For example, I once read a philosophical novel to my older kids. It was a good story that brought up important subjects, but it also had too-heavy dialog and sex scenes. It was my judgment that both things got in the way of an uncluttered understanding of more important subjects, and so I passed over them. Either I’d rephrase parts, or else I’d skip over pages at a time.

This kind of editing isn’t terribly hard, so long as you’ve read the book yourself first, and so long as you don’t make a big deal out of it. You can even tell the kids you’re skipping over parts that you think will be too slow or hard. They likely won’t complain.

All that said, you don’t always have to be heavy with teenagers either. My children and I had great fun going through Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy (the five-book trilogy, of course), a terribly funny and quirky take on science fiction.

Lesson Number 6: Include Discussion Time

This is especially true for older children, as in the scenario just above (you’re giving them a lot to digest and they’ll have questions). But it’s sometimes true for younger children too. Let them ask their questions, and you can even prod them a little when you see something rising in them.

But here also this is an art rather than a set of rules to follow. Because, as you’ll almost certainly learn if you haven’t already, children not wanting to go to sleep may ask you questions just to extend the time.

Lesson Number 7: Go Ahead And Do The Characters

No one’s expecting you to be a Shakespearian actor, so go ahead and be a little dramatic with your stories: You can use different voices for the characters, emphasize their emotions, and generally have fun with it. At story time you get to be a little silly too. It’s good for the kids to see you loosen up, and it’s likely good for you too.

It’s also good for story-telling.

Lesson Number 8: Show A Lot of Empathy And Sympathy

It’s important to show a lot of empathy (vicariously experiencing the feelings of others) and sympathy (a less energy-intensive version of the same) in the stories you tell. Our built-in morality mechanism – the one referenced by the golden rule and by more or less every worthwhile moral teacher – is built around these things. And so it’s crucial that our children get to know them… get to feel them.

One crucial way our children get to know empathy and sympathy is to identify with characters in stories. That is, they feel along with a character: Their sympathy for the man with his leg stuck in the fence, or sharing the elation of a tireless researcher who finally reaches his or her “eureka” moment. Work to display the inner experiences of these people. The mere experience of such things is potent in a child. (And in adults too.)

We want our children to resonate with the important and/or instructive emotional experiences of others. This is where stories excel, and where were can plant seeds directly into them. There was a good reason, after all, why Jesus taught in parables: Stories cut right past word-denominated formulas and arguments (aka, blockages), delivering concepts rather than logical presentations.

There is a lot to be said about this, of course, but the take-away is that delivering concepts via stories and parallels is more effective (usually far more effective) than making structured arguments. We are organisms, after all, not mechanisms.

More next time.


Paul Rosenberg