“Tell me a story, dad.” Those words gladdened my heart. What a marvelous opportunity to share a personal moment with my child. Stories offer a more complete package, a pathway beyond ordinary conversation, the chance to tell a deeper truth.
Of the many story settings, the most intimate and special may be bedtime. A precious private time when attachments are formed and deepened. Of course, a parent can read to a child. There are many classics. Where the Wild Things Are, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, and Are You My Mother? come to mind among many.
But I prefer the more personal approach of making up my own story.
It was not that difficult. I told bedtime stories to two children at a time. The content came from listening to their day. I took whatever happened and moved it to the jungle where a family of monkeys with the last name of Wump lived. Surprisingly, the younger Wumps had the same first names as my children. Daddy Chimpanzee kept me informed by sending me a daily “letter” on the inside of empty banana skins.
If my kids had a ball game, their monkey namesakes would have some contest with coconuts. If their teacher reprimanded them or gave them a bad grade, there was always an owlish mentor to replay the problem. Fortunately, the jungle is full of snakes and tigers and crocodiles to play the role of villains in any scary incidents that arose.
What the monkey stories did was give me the opportunity to tell a story about how a little monkey in the jungle with his name was coping with a success or a problem that was actually going on in my child’s life – a far better communication than a lecture or advice.
After three years in foster care, five-year-old Ariette has come to live with our family, her new family. I watch and listen to her as she tentatively engages – or backs off. And I wonder what must be going through her mind.
I couldn’t wait to tell her a story about Ari Wump, a little monkey who wakes up one morning to find her parents have disappeared. Sad and lonely, she hesitantly begins to search for them. When a reliable vine suddenly turns into a snake, Ari becomes frightened. She escapes only to meet a tiger. And a crocodile. Finally she gets angry and plays a trick on the crocodile. An owl and a bird and a motherly lion help Ari on her way to a new family of chimps and a safe, loving home.
I tell my new granddaughter a story about a lost little monkey who becomes empowered and eventually finds a permanent family. Ariana’s feelings and coping are expressed vicariously in her monkey counterpart. Ari Wump becomes sad and lonely following a major trauma. She is frightened by some scary encounters. She gets angry and strikes back. She is confused by a variety of experiences. But she ends up in a safe and permanent place.
Healing stories are not magic. But with a damaged and confused child who may have closed herself off, they offer a better approach than questions and conversation. For parents and therapists, the story approach is a way to breach the isolating wall.