In your most sweet and patient voice, you try to explain how your child’s behavior is not acceptable and then he or she starts staring at shoelaces like they are the most interesting things on the freaking planet. Have you ever had this happen? You’re monologuing, yet not one of your many words can penetrate that frozen stare.
Maybe your kiddo is lost in imagination or has the audacity to actually laugh out loud at a scene in a movie he or she just remembered mid-lecture. It can be frustrating.
A child who fidgets uncomfortably, refuses to answer questions, or seems to peer into an alternate reality while discussing how his or her negative behavior has escaped. Unfortunately, the things we typically do to try to get his or her attention will push a child further away.
Consider a new approach. Stop, drop, and tell a story.
Lectures vs. Stories
Lectures presuppose a general understanding of basic truths or opinions. This can work for older kids and adults who need logical reminders of why what they already believe applies to a current situation. However, younger kids need to learn to believe that negative behavior is, in fact, negative. Stories can build that groundwork.
Stories have the amazing ability to connect us to the thoughts and feelings of others, providing insight, and building empathy. A well-timed story can show us the trajectory of one’s choices as well as alternate endings. Further, stories can take the focus off of the immediate problem allowing a child to have an honest conversation about an issue without shame or fear. As a result, we can see more dialogue and less glazing over of the eyes.
Telling a Story
Try connecting with your child by telling a personal story. These stories can come from both your own childhood and recent incidents. Letting our kids know we also have and do struggle with feelings of anger, jealousy, or selfishness can really be the bridge that puts you both on the same side of an issue. Too often children only see parents as people who have all the right answers. Let them know you get it and can relate.
Optionally, come up with a simple story that mirrors the problem you are dealing with. First, narrate the story that has happened with a few key changes. You’ll want to change the names of the characters and the context just enough so that it’s not too obvious. I often use names that rhyme with my kids’ names for fun, then adamantly defend myself that the character, in no way, has anything to do with them. Again, we’re hoping to show what’s happening from another perspective with a lightened mood. Try using puppets or toys to act out the scene.
Then, narrate the story that should’ve happened instead. Ask your child to give input on what decisions the characters ought to make and why. You don’t want him or her to repeat what’s been told a hundred times. We’re going deep and being authentic. This helps teach how things should go next time. But it will also make these convictions his or her own and not just rules to follow to make adults happy.
Finally, narrate how the first story can be restored. The story cannot just end with being the bad guy. What can the character do to make things right? A child needs to know that reconciliation is at hand. Ask the child questions about how they felt about various parts of the story. Let them connect the dots and keep the mood light. Be ready to be there for a hug and encouraging words.
A Few Tips
Don’t worry if you’re not a great story teller. All you need are some characters that bear a suspicious resemblance to the ones involved in the current issue, a very similar conflict, and a healthy resolution.
You want to tell a story, provide the right learning tools, and see if he or she will come to the best understanding.
If there are going to be consequences for the behavior, work that into the story as well. Clearly show the ramifications are bearable, reasonable, and that full trust and privilege are restored.
Our children are afraid of being the bad guy. Hearing bad behavior might illicit feelings of shame and fear of consequences that prevent hearing necessary, helpful information. Consequently, this pits our kids against us, and we want to avoid that.
Let your child connect the dots. Don’t come right out and say which actor he or she was in the story, let you kiddo tell you. Make sure to give words to express why the character who behaved poorly might’ve done so. Say you understand why the character felt a certain way.
You can’t tell a story every single time your kid acts up. I get it. But getting into the swing of identifying with our kids, lightening the mood, and facilitating conversation can only benefit our parenting skills.
Every time one of my children has gone through a lying stage, I’ve told them a particular story. It’s the story of a certain second grade little girl with red hair and freckles who stole all of the candy canes off of the classroom Christmas tree. (Spoiler: it was me.)
My kids are astonished at my naughtiness as I tell them about standing out in the hall while my teacher held my gaping, unzipped backpack full of brightly colored candy canes, and I insisted with sobs and tears that I had no idea how they got there. They love these stories because they can relate. We are alike. As a storyteller, I can become a trusted ally and helper.