The Art of Telling Bedtime Stories, Part 4

Lesson #12: The Greek Model

The classical civilization of the Greeks, while not the golden age some people think it was, nonetheless spawned important developments. One of those was the meaningful story.

Over the 8th century BC (800701 BC), the myths and stories of the Greeks took shape and were written, by people like Homer and Hesiod. And it’s very important to understand that the Greek myths were a radical departure from those of previous civilizations. Firstly, they were created (then told, then written) in a very particular way: So that people could find parallels in their personal lives… so that they could find understanding and meaning in them.

The theologies of the ancient empires had addressed men’s actions: Do X, Y and Z, and the gods will reward you, and so on. The Greeks, quite to the contrary, created stories that addressed men’s souls. Greek stories might very well help you to understand and develop yourself; they might help you find meaning and purpose in your life. That’s a lot harder to do that to write heroic stories of bloody gods and kings. It also creates a better listening and reading public.

But there was something else or great importance in these stories: In them, men were not small, insignificant and powerless before the gods. In the Greek myths, men challenged the gods and sometimes won. Most importantly, they won, not through strength or speed, but by superior thinking. This was a radically new intellectual development, and it’s one we can use in our bedtime stories.

When telling a “Greek model” story, we set it up so that the child – the child to whom the story is being told – is made the hero of the story, and who “saves the day” with clear and innovative thinking.

One of our upcoming sections will be a complete example of this type of story, but before that, it’s important to understand the mental models we are building with these stories: I think they are terribly profound.

Telling a story in which the child is the central character (and again, the specific child listening) creates vivid mental images for them. The hearing of these stories gives the child a positive mental model… a model featuring themselves. If this takes root in the child (and the more you tell such stories, the more likely this will happen, and the better), they will carry a positive image of themselves, probably for life.

The fact is that we do form mental images of ourselves and of others. And we refer to them often… and for ourselves, routinely. Consciously building and reinforcing those images is tremendously potent. Self-image is destiny in many important ways.

Bear in mind that some of your efforts to instill good images of this type will have no apparent effect at all. How and when these things root in others is poorly understood. Still, we must continue with them as best we can. One out of X times they will root and will bear good fruit, and often life-long fruit.

Lesson #13: Superheroes And Other Compromises.

Superheroes are everywhere in children’s toys and entertainment. They are hard to avoid. Personally, I’m not terribly fond of them, and so for me (perhaps for you too) they’ve been a difficult area.

I’ll list a few of my concerns with superheroes in a moment, but first I want to address the question of compromise: Should we ever compromise? If so, when? And if not, what are the hazards of that position?

My answer to Should we ever compromise? Is “Yes, probably so.” The alternative is to play tough guy, and that has problems of it’s own. For one, it pushes us toward being dogmatic. For another, it may make your children think you care more about your rules than you do about them. There are work-arounds for these things – like telling them precisely why you’re saying no (a good idea almost always) – but they are not foolproof.

So, I think compromise is sometimes the least imperfect choice. This again is probably more art than science, and will always entail trade-offs, uncertain results and uncertainty on your part, but such is life in a complicated world. We have no choice but to do our best, regardless of muddy circumstances.

As for superheroes, I tend not to like them because they divert attention from the fact that we all need to be heroes, not just a magic few of us. In addition, heroism entails far, far more than violence, and yet superheroes solve almost everything with violence. Heroism, in my scheme of a better world, would be seen in mainly in ethical choices, not in the supercharged violence of the superheros.

Lesson #14: Have Them Tell Stories.

As soon as children are ready for it, I recommend that you have them tell you stories from time to time, such as one day per week. It’s a great exercise for them to stretch their imaginations and to get comfortable expressing themselves before others. And, of course, to learn how to speak effectively to an audience.

Lesson #15: Don’t Be Afraid To Tell A Story Badly.

When ad libbing stories – as I think is all but necessary – you’re not always going to get it right. And so I think you should be comfortable messing up.

If your story gets lost, or becomes unclear, or whatever, feel free to stop, tell the children that you messed it up, and start over. One of the most famous preachers of the 19th century (Spurgeon or Finney, perhaps, but I’ve long since lost the reference) used to say that no sermon was very good until you’d delivered it fifty times. So, feel free about backing up, starting over, or just saying, “I’ll do it better tomorrow.”

It’s better to fly by the seat of your pants and to fix things on the second flight, than never to fly at all.


Paul Rosenberg