Tucked in our back bedroom, we could see and hear the hurricane make her way through our yard. The power was out, the tub was full of water, and candles were illuminating the rooms of our small home. Outside, old man Hickory, our tallest tree, was waving like a metronome in the intense winds while our apple trees became cheerleader’s pom-poms shaking over and over. Our old windows let in wild whistles and moans, and rain splattered the glass as if someone were repeatedly tossing buckets of water at the house. Amidst all of this excitement and danger, my youngest son asked, “Will you tell us a story?”
Within that question were several requests: Can you help me relax? Can you help me be brave? Can you distract me from my fear? Can you explain what is happening? Of course I wanted to help him and his brother by offering the perfect mix of therapy, empathy and entertainment that would strengthen and relax them through the intense storm.
But I had to tell it immediately – and in that moment, I had nothing.
So what to do?
What to do when you have two rambunctious kids in the backseat and another 20 minutes until you arrive?
What to do when you are exhausted and your daughter demands a story before bed?
What to do when the plane hits some turbulence and your son starts to worry?
In these days we are quick to reach for technology. The convenience, the portability, the effectiveness and the variety are all real and true. The TV, mp3 player, cellphone, laptop and tablet will engage and distract. It does work. But it has a cost like everything else. And the biggest cost your children’s growing dependence on technology to keep their attention. They will grow to desire the immediacy and high level of sensation that technology offers.
The “use technology as a tool” maxim doesn’t really apply with small children. Their sense of what is “real” is not fully developed yet, and they depend on the authority around them for instruction. When this environment includes cartoons, computer games and interactive websites – the line between real and pretend becomes blurred. This is a vulnerable place for young children, and conscious parents struggle to control the content that their children are exposed to. They sift and surf looking for recommendations and reviews. It is exhausting and seldom worth it.
But another alternative is right under their noses. Storytelling!
Tell them a story. Make one up on the spot. It is convenient. It is portable. It is effective and holds immense variety. Parents have complete control over content and it is FREE! Well, almost free. You do need to take the time to tell the story. But the payback is huge. Your children will be dazzled by you, you will offer them some content that is important to you, and you might learn a little about yourself or your child in the process. Plus, in my experience, I am filled with rejuvenating energy. It’s a win-win.
And what’s more, your children develop a more powerful and enduring attention. Rather than having the content spoon fed to them in snappy, rapidly changing images and sounds – they can create their own images and drama inwardly. They can be present to the moment and literally attend.
To attend is to be there. When you attend an event, you show up. You are really there – and to have attention is to be fully present. We want our children to have full attention. We want their attention spans to be wide. It is a word that comes up all the time in schools. Attention is often graded and evaluated. And many children are “diagnosed” with a deficiency in Attention. ADD and ADHD continue to be on the rise in many schools, and mediating this “condition” continues to be the focus of many school professionals. We value healthy attentions.
But how are we modeling this for our children? How is our attention? Do we fully attend? Is our attention span wide and full and focused – or are we also deficient in our attention? How often have we not heard our own child because we were checking email? How often have we blanked on someone’s name because we never heard it in the first place? How often have we driven home without remembering how we got there? Attention. If we really value it in our children, then it makes sense to work on our own.
So once again – storytelling to the rescue!
Attention is the starting place of every intuitive story. In order to make up a story on the spot, we need to start. We need a seed. We need a launching pad. And the world is ready to help you. The world will surround you with ideas and then show you the way, and all you have to do is attend. Pay attention. Look around. Listen. Smell the air. Taste your food. Feel your feet in your shoes. Be there. Then the magic begins.
When you are about to tell a story and you open yourself to all that is around you, you will be amazed at what you notice.
You will see things that you never noticed are there. You will hear things that surprise you. You will taste a faint hint of something that reminds you of a distant place long ago. Images will come to you, and then your job is to open your mouth and describe what you are experiencing. Start slowly and the image will lead you.
“Once upon a time, there was a bee … who hated the taste of honey…” or “There was once a little girl … who longed to be as small as an ant…” or “Long ago and far away there was a gentle woodsman …who was looking for his mother…”
And then the fun begins. The story gets told before you – with no clear sense of where it is going or what is going to happen. It feels like someone else is telling the story, and you are listening along with your children. But then every now and then the story comes to an impasse. There is a crossroads in the story that stops the flow. It always happens – even if only for a moment. Attention can come to the rescue once again.
When you don’t know where to take the story and you are seeming a little lost, then look around. Listen. Smell. Notice everything until something in particular takes your attention. A butterfly. A green mailbox. The sound of mariachi music. The smell of exhaust. You notice and an image comes. And it is the perfect solution to the impasse. Then you continue.
Paying attention will take you amazing places. It will connect you deeply with your child and the All That Is to deliver a powerful, moving and entertaining story you will always remember.
You can start with the following exercise: drive in your car. As you are driving, suddenly look to the left and note what you see. Then say “There was once a (mailbox) that…” and then see what comes out. Just see – there is no risk. If a story starts pouring out, go with it. If you hit a wall, look to the right. “And then a (green tractor) … came driving over and stopped just before the mailbox… the farmer got out and said…” You can also play this with your kids and take turns. It is great practice for trying the same thing in the airport, waiting for the dentist and indeed, lying in bed helping them go to sleep.
David and Lisabeth will be bringing a story to life each season here at Rhythm of the Home. Their autumn story featuring Martin and Sylvia, The Autumn Goose Pond, can be heard here.
David Sewell McCann fell in love with spinning stories in first grade — the day a storyteller came to his class and captured his mind and imagination. He has been engaged in storytelling all of his adult life through art, film-making, teaching and performing. Out of his experience as a Waldorf class teacher and parent, he has developed a method of intuitive storytelling, which he now shares through workshops and through his website.
Together he and his wife Lisabeth Sewell McCann have created Sparkle Stories.