On a day when I had done more grumbling, groaning, and gnashing of teeth at my children’s behavior than actually talking to them, the NPR article, How Inuit Parents Raise Kids Without Yelling, stopped me in my tracks.
According to NPR, if I adopted the Inuit child-rearing practices of 1) not yelling at them, and 2) using storytelling to teach them lessons, my children would learn greater responsibility and become kinder, gentler parents themselves one day. Color me sold.
While I’ve worked to cut back on my yelling, I knew I was a long way from responding to my kids’ choices and behaviors with true equanimity. If my kid busted the floor of my igloo, there’s no way I would respond with, “Too bad,” as an Inuit parent is described doing. All too often, I match my kids’ temper tantrums, not with calm storytelling, but with a temper tantrum of my own- at least that’s how it feels. And while we’re well out of the early years of parenting that can feel like you’re marching from one battle to the next, pre-teen battles are more complicated.
Using storytelling as a tool to manage my kids’ mistakes and, perhaps more importantly, my own reaction to them, was at least worth a try.
I read the storytelling article three times to glean every ounce of parental wisdom available before launching my own attempt. The article offers several examples of stories Inuit parents might use to teach their kids that at first were a little off-putting, I confess. Telling them a sea monster might grab them and pull them into the sea if they walked too close to the water felt like a bit much, even for my older kids. But because I DO have older kids, I figured, what the heck.
On my first day of being a storytelling parent, I was aggravated that Libby (9 years old) had left all of her things all over the mudroom YET AGAIN. When I felt the heat rising in my head, the voice rising in my throat, I turned my aggravation immediately, without thought or planning, into a story. I told her:
When the Mommy Monster is so annoyed by her Monster Child leaving her things all over the place, she rips her child’s head off and puts it on a shelf. She will only return her Monster Child’s head to her once she has picked up all of her things and put them away.
OMG. I froze, not believing what just came out of my mouth. Libby was going to cry. It was going to take us fifteen more minutes to get out of the house now. And obviously, NONE of the things were going to be picked up. Storytelling and Mommy FAIL!
Libby’s mouth did drop open, but she didn’t cry. Instead, she met my impromptu gory story with some gore of her own:
The Monster Child then STABS the Mommy Monster.
Libby quickly wrapped her arms around me, and we laughed our heads off together. What could have been a morning of me grumbling in frustration as my kiddo went out the door for the day, became just silly fun. And while my story appeared to do no damage to Libby, nothing was picked up then or the next day, so I knew my storytelling needed some work.
My next adventure in storytelling came the very next morning when I noticed Libby had not made her bed.
This time I was a little more prepared to try to shape a story that could help Libby learn something. “Libby,” I told her, “You didn’t make your bed. You know what that means? You’re letting the Bed Making Monster have a party.” I then proceeded to perform a little Bed Making Monster dance consisting of wild butt wiggles and the chant, “I’m the powerful Bed Making Monster and you can’t control me!” My husband was definitely unimpressed with my storytelling and dancing, but Libby once again laughed uproariously.
I was ready to discard my storytelling parenting technique as another faddish effort, when the very next day, Libby pointed out that she had made her bed. “The Bed Making Monster has been put under your control,” I cheered. “No butt dance!” Libby smiled happily then slyly pointed out that her sister had not yet made her bed which prompted a wild Bed Making Monster dance break from both of us. I don’t know how long this will last, but it’s been a week and that bed has been made every dang day.
I haven’t yet had a chance to try out my new Jedi-parenting tricks on Libby’s older sister (age 12) but I think storytelling could work on improving responsibility among the middle school crowd as well.
I’m already anticipating that my storytelling will include fewer monsters and more innocent children who die tragic (ridiculous) deaths for not remembering to wear deodorant or take showers when they should. There’s actually some research that indicates these dark stories are good for kids as they help children explore morality and venture more in the adult world. Author Neil Gaiman tells us:
Fear is a wonderful thing, in small doses. You ride the ghost train into the darkness, knowing that eventually the doors will open and you will step out into the daylight once again.
I think of my venture into using storytelling less about trying to scare my kids into doing the things I want them to do, and more about finding an engaging way to help them listen to what they need to do. Storytelling even seems to help us find common ground. I am an adult and know things that they haven’t yet learned (You really do need to turn your electronics off at least an hour before bed, kiddos, if you expect to sleep.) If I want them to actually listen, think about my lessons, and teach my kiddos responsibility then using storytelling over Charlie Brown lecturing is a parenting win any day.