What’s Your Story?

Bounty is beautiful cropped

Last weekend we told a lot of stories. They were as bountiful and connected as my blushing blueberries!

Our friend, Lynn C. was here visiting from the east.  She was in need of respite from her work and wanted only to laugh and play.  She picked beans, waded into cold water, spent too much at Art in the Park and ate wonderful food.  Lynn became a part of our lives when we were deeply into the public radio world.

I told her a story about traveling alone in Europe and landing in a train station in Zurich, Switzerland in front of a train board trying to decide which of the great cities of Europe I wanted to go to—and another story about almost having my passport stolen in Naples, Italy by a young guy on a motor bike.

She told an exciting story about a trip to New York, her taxi getting attacked by four young thugs and her climbing over the seat to drive off when the cab driver got smashed in the face.  (She also got punched, but got away.)

Milt told stories about gathering up a van-load of donated recording equipment and traveling on to Hoopa, California to do a youth radio training.  Today’s equivalent of that van-load of equipment would fit in a single seat.

We told stories of youth, aging parents,  lost loves, early marriages, travels, kids, idiot governments, etc., etc.

And we talked about stories.  We all agreed that stories are the bits of silver chain that connect us at our most basic levels.  Our most important stories are always hero stories.  We meet the dragon, fight it, and return home a warrior.  It is amazing how many of our stories involve adversity.

When I was writing The Lonely Place, Revisioning Adolescence and the Rite of Passage, I included a section on how to use stories to link families together.  I’m going to copy Chapter Nine of that book below for those of you who are interested in a bit of a longer read.  The book is also available for purchase at Amazon or on my books page.

What are the formative stories of your life?  How did they shape you?  How did they introduce change whether you liked it or not?  How did they help you advance or slow you down?  Let me know.

And remember, a story is just a story—it doesn’t have to shape you in ways that you don’t want it to.  If our stories get old–we can just create new stories.

Excerpt from The Lonely Place

Chapter Nine

How to Begin Storytelling

How do you know what story to tell—and when? A story is a good one when it is the right story at the right time. This sounds so simple until we consider the constantly changing kaleidoscope of our own child’s development. From birth to death, the colors swirl and change, the desires shift as the brain juggles ten billion brain cells clamoring for attention. To keep it simple, we must train ourselves to better hear where our child is on a long developmental continuum.

For example, many of the manuals on sex education suggest that we only answer the questions asked and not offer too much beyond that. We let their curiosity and level of understanding dictate the amount of information given. This advice works here too. By observing our children, we can better understand whether their current struggles have to do with other children at school, a fear growing unattended in their middles, or a problem growing with procrastinating getting their schoolwork finished. By improving our ability to observe what is presented, we can match our stories to their current struggles at any age.

One day I was driving my five-year-old grand-daughter, Kayna, home after spending the night with us. We passed the elementary school where she would be starting Kindergarten that next fall. Everybody had been telling her how fun it will be, how exciting it was that she gets to go to school. When we passed the school, I saw her shudder a bit, and then rest her head on her arm with a forlorn look. It was clear that she didn’t necessarily think it was so exciting. I told her a story.

“I remember my first day of school. We lived up in the north woods in Minnesota, about three blocks from the school. I had on new shoes, a new dress. My mother was going to let me walk to school all by myself.”

Kayna was instantly interested. I went on. “It was so scary I thought I might pee my pants.” Her head came up fast, and she giggled (like a five-year-old) at the thought of her grown-up grandma worrying about peeing her pants. And that famous food for a storyteller, the listener wanting to know what happened next, Kayna said, “Well, did you? Pee your pants?”

Slowly I told her how I had to push my toes to walk to school that day, all the time feeling scared with a tummy ache. And then I just had to march right into that school, go to my new room, meet that old teacher, and see those other kids. Then, and only then, did the fear go away—but by the end of the day I thought the teacher was nice and that school might just be a little fun.

A story? Little girl faces first day at school. Feels great fear. Conquers fear and goes anyway. Discovers school is going to be okay.

This is a story that every adult and school age child in America shares. In fact, when I was telling my husband, Milt, about it later he sheepishly told me the story of how his mother had to take him back to the classroom three times because he kept leaving. One story has a way of reawakening stories in others. That is another thing to remember as we consider which stories to tell. Often the right story will simply arise naturally from the cauldron of our own memories. When this happens, give only fleeting consideration to the structure and details of the story to be sure it includes the right stuff. In fact, here is a quick template (a reminder of the earlier info) to use for judging whether a story meets the well-formed criteria. A story has:

  • a beginning, a middle, and an end,
  • one or more forms of conflict,
  • matches the age and developmental level

of the child,

  • has an effective point of view and tone of voice,
  • is told with intention and with honesty,
  • and outlines the steps to discovery (strategies

used for solving the conflict)

Naturally, these rules can be broken. There’ll be many occasions when a small sketch or vignette will do in place of a story. These are like small chunks of stories or brief character descriptions. This material is like the filler between all your other stories.

Telling a Story with Intention

Intention is the difference between an aimless ramble down a city street versus walking to make an appointment on time. A story with intention has a destination and a way of getting there. Stories that are told with intention have a greater chance of hitting their mark. Our goal, ultimately, is to make use of stories in a natural and organic way to present our understanding of the way life works.

However, especially to begin with, we might think a story through to determine its power points, the internal structure, and our goal in telling it. We have to be aware of too much obsessive detail—it kills a good story. We’ve all known people whose stories seemed to ramble on and on without a single relevant point or a satisfactory ending. This form of storytelling is simply boring. In fact, many movies and books suffer from this same problem.

What is the reason or intention in telling the story? The intention of a story will fall somewhere within four basic, generalized story types. The first type contains the stories that connect us with our own family, community and history. The second type contains the stories that teach and illustrate useful strategies for living. A third and higher form suggests to the child that there is more to life than that we have to pay taxes and die. This story type points the child toward a future vision and a reach toward higher spiritual structures. The fourth type is interactive and includes stories that the child will tell us thus setting up a two-way flow of stories.

Stories that connect

A healthy adult feels connected to family, to the ancestral lineage, and to the community in which he or she lives. Many stories can be told for no other reason than to build small bridges of communication between parents and children. These stories include a lot of humor, entertaining family stories, stories about the child’s birth and early years, stories about our own childhood, the funny things we did, the ways we entertained ourselves etc.

Children can be invited to tell their own stories about school, what the teacher did, what their friends did etc. These stories should be woven throughout every single day in great abundance. Although they may not fit all the above criteria for what a story is, it doesn’t matter. Our goal or intention in this layer of storytelling is to keep all lines of communication open and flowing freely.  Instead of “What did you do in school today?” where you get the classic response of “Nothing,” ask instead, “What was the funniest thing that happened today? Were there any monsters in school today? Did the teacher tell any stories?”

With smaller children we can even get into more make believe stories that encourage imagination and creativity. We can ask them what they would have done if a large, slimy slug oozed into the classroom and tried to sit at a desk and would it have made the students laugh because he kept sliding off the chair again? Make this storytelling a fun, loose, and creative time. Besides being entertaining and fun, we can also remember that pushing the mind for the non-ordinary answers builds more and more neural connectors in the brain.

Once I asked my son (he was about eight) the following question. “If you had lived another lifetime in another place, what would it have been?” I was stunned when he went into this long story about living in Russia, seeing the dirt roads, wearing rugged clothes, and sometimes dreaming in Russian. He said his name was “Capiune.” I’ve no idea what any of it meant—but he was as clear as a bell about it all.

A healthy adult feels connected to his or her community and culture. Some stories dip into family history and roots. They can include the stories about how great grandfather came from Norway, or how Grandma used to cook in a logging camp in the north woods, or how old Uncle George watched his barn blow away in a Kansas tornado. We can think in terms of both ethnic roots and actual family histories. Some of the stories may not seem to have much conflict but are like small human interest stories about the family that your children have both a right and a need to know. Recent Internet research indicates that the most visited web sites (after porn) are family genealogy sites. The huge interest in genealogy research underscores the fact that we hunger for family stories. I read a story once about a white woman who decided to look into family roots only to discover that her great grandmother was the first black woman to graduate from an eastern college. The woman didn’t know she had an African American grandmother.

Hearing the stories that put us in this place at this time strengthens our cultural or social identity. We didn’t simply land in this country, region, or neighborhood. A series of historical events brought us to this time and place. In ancient, tribal cultures there were no written histories and everything was given orally. Even today in some tribes the family stories and songs are considered family property.  A family valued its songs and stories as some of its most prized possessions.

The stories were the only way to build a series of links from the present into the distant past. Without the stories, this information would be lost. We in the modern world have not forgotten this need to be linked to our past—we feel it deeply within. Even today lost letters or diaries that surface belonging to important historical figures or our own family members are highly treasured. We long to hear of their experiences, what they went through in order to survive, what carried them through the mysterious loops of time.

When I was a very young girl, my great-grandfather was in his nineties. All I really knew about him was that he smelled of old tobacco and always had a ready supply of lemon drops to pop into our mouths when we visited him. He lived in a small apartment next to my grandmother’s house. Once I saw an old trunk that held a lamp and had writing on it. I asked Grandmother about it and she said Great Grandfather had carried that old wooden trunk out of Denmark when he immigrated. I was too young then to ask him any questions. I cared only about lemon drops and his bouncing knee.

I still know nothing about his journey from Denmark or even where in Denmark he came from. How old was he? Who did he leave behind? How did he manage it? As a young girl I considered only that he was, and always had been, an old, old man. Now the questions come and there is nobody left to ask. When we visited Hellinger in Austria, he told us that Americans are restless because they seek their relatives.

When family storytelling has become a common element in our daily lives, we might even want to take a recorder to still-living elders and grandparents, sit with them, and ask them to tell stories. We can ask them about how they lived, what changes they have seen, how they cooked, what they did before television, etc. Dig out old family pictures and ask the elders who the people in the pictures are and what they did. Although America really is a melting pot with a population that constantly shifts locations, we all came from somewhere.  Even the tribal groups traveled across the lands.

Creating links and a sense of connection is the key to this layer of storytelling. Without these we feel alienated and alone. Depression, isolation, and despair are on the rise both in our younger population and the general population. Could it be the lack of relevant and meaning-ful stories?

Building curiosity about our neighborhoods and communities is also an important part of adolescent initiation. With events such as the horrible mass murder of students in Littleton, Colorado and other communities, we can’t help but assume those young people had no sense of belonging or affection for their community or school. It was a terrible missing piece, and most of are terrified about what it says about us as a society. We feel helpless, unable to name the villain here. We long to be part of the solution but find ourselves caught in endless bouts of useless analysis. Using a storytelling approach to create curiosity about our immediate community could be a small part of the solution. By turning backwards in time to one of the most consistent and ancient forms of communication—storytelling—we may be able to make our tribe strong once again.

When I began this project many years ago, I impulsively joined two police officers at a table in our local Happy Chef and asked them what they thought about youth in this community. I explained what I was working on and asked their opinion. It was interesting: their analysis had to do with the lack of communication between neighbors. One officer said that he constantly answers calls about kid problems in a neighborhood that, at one time, the neighbors themselves would have dealt with. If a kid throws an egg at your house, you march over to that kid’s house and tell his parents to deal with the kid. Now, the officer said, the offended parent calls the police.

It’s possible to even extend this storytelling approach into neighborhoods in order to make more direct links with one another. What do you know about the stories of your neighbors? Do you know where they came from, what work they do, what their favorite movies and activities are?

Stories that teach

A young person must learn the steps needed to develop successful strategies for living. This kind of storytelling relates most directly to initiation practices for our young people. We need to find ways to impart important information and strategies without carrying a baseball bat or lecturing endlessly. Here the story we tell will contain a direct lesson and the steps we took to achieve a desired outcome. Here, in particular, we must be careful of the tone of voice and the right telling of the story. Our intention is to tell a story in such a way that it naturally fits the reality of the young person, and they are able to relate it in some way to their own experiences.

Telling stories is not meant to replace the need for steady discipline or explaining what rules. Rather, it is a rich addition to spouting household rules. It’s a way to place the rules in the larger context of the family.

Milton Erickson, well known for his work in hypnotherapy, used stories constantly to enrich lives and change old patterns. As he heard a person’s problem, he would place it in the “class of problems” stored in his mind. Next he would slide over and consider the “class of solutions” and pick an appropriate story from that class to help resolve the problem. For instance, to a child who is wetting the bed he may tell stories of how a baseball player must control the bat, clenching his muscles in just the right way, waiting for the right moment to release his hold. This is what we can do with our stories. We hear the problem from our child and then find the appropriate story that contains a solution.  His use of metaphors was masterful and took years to develop.  Our stories do not need to be subliminal to be effective.

We can use our own stories or turn to the thousands of teaching stories available in every corner of the world. These stories sort themselves out in a wide variety of ways but all have the goal of imparting information about relationships with the self, others, money, community, school, and the spiritual world. Below are brief descriptions of the many types of stories that fall under the category of teaching stories. These are just a few.

Hero stories: These stories tell of a character who overcomes great adversity or giant obstacles to obtain a goal. The characters may be mythical gods, prairie wives, Indian chiefs, beasts, sports heroes, or career giants. In fact, we find heroes in every walk of life and down every historical trail. Whether they are children or Gods, they can still be heroes.

The power of these stories comes from a person, just like you or me, reaching high above his or her personal obstacles to reach and obtain a goal. The bottom line is that we all want to have a hero or be a hero.

Value Stories: Value stories are about people using human kindness, honesty, integrity, fairness, justice, etc. as an approach to problems and life. In a value story, the obstacle to be overcome usually is a hidden one such as selfishness or greed. A child has two suckers and meets a friend on the sidewalk. Does he give the second sucker to the friend or stick them both in his pocket and save them for later?

Telling stories with value themes is a way to indicate to young people that they are linked to a larger com-munity and must always consider that community. The Hopi story of offering water to the young corn plants before drinking any himself is an example of this story type.

Quality of character: These stories are similar to  value stories but are more sharply focused on what kind of personal qualities we wish to acquire in life. How do we want others to see us? One of my favorite stories in this category is the one about the couple that is moving to town and they meet an old man sitting on a porch and ask him what kind of town this is. The man asks what their last town was like, and the couple tells one nasty story after another about how cruel and selfish the people were. When they finish the old man says, “Yep, that is just what this town is like.” Another couple comes along and asks the same question and the old man asks again what their last town was like. This time the couple is full of praise about what a wonderful, generous, beautiful place their old town was. The old man says, “Yep, that’s what this town is like.”

Attitudes toward the world and other people greatly influence whether our experience of life is great—or lousy. Quality of character stories emphasize strength, a positive attitude, courage, and selflessness.

Prosperity and work stories: Young people are very concerned about making correct career choices. They want to find work that satisfies and pays them well at the same time. (Actually many adults are in the same boat.) My favorite stories of this type feature a person who strongly believes in something even when it looks impossible. He or she moves ahead and is highly successful—the rags to riches story.

We can find many true stories of this kind in the biographies of great scientists, teachers, inventors, and public leaders. There are also many wonderful books in the self-help/motivation section of the bookstore with this theme. It is my personal belief that these stories encourage young people to look outside the normal paradigm of grades/college/high paying job and to find their own unique dream. The present world offers numerous opportunities for an entrepreneurial approach to making a living. We could also encourage them to value self-satisfaction as much as the paycheck that comes with work.

Teacher stories. Some of the most beautiful stories include the timely arrival of a teacher at those difficult moments in life. Teacher stories acknowledge those sweet souls who stepped in and helped us when we most needed help. As we scan our own stories, we will find a teacher, a kind neighbor, friend, coach, stranger, or boss who somehow saw our need and filled it. We must always acknowledge our teachers in the stories we tell. These stories can also emphasize that no matter where we are in our lives, we will always be a “student” in need of a teacher.

Mystical stories: It isn’t enough to simply introduce our children to the facts of life. Mystical stories encourage us to lift our eyes to the higher realms and explore such mysterious concepts as imagination, spirit, philosophy, God, and finding our right place in the universe. Children are always and naturally interested in the supernatural worlds as well as this world. Although many parents fear this unknown themselves, it is important to allow for exploration of the other realms.

The careful separation of church and state has disallowed such philosophical exploration in the school systems, so we must satisfy this need by providing a rich source of stories in which the characters take on the mysterious unknown. We could note the giant popularity of the Harry Potter books as evidence of this need. The fascination with strange, weird movies and books is a strong indication of the strength of this interest in young people. Be careful not to let Hollyweird guide your child into the dark side of the unknown.

Future-vision stories: In many years of working with others, I find that depression and sadness often come because we cannot see beyond this moment—we have no vision of the future.  Future vision stories can be used like a game within the family to encourage children to look out and beyond this moment.  We can entertain the most outrageous futures and perhaps, in the process, find the vision that actually excites us.  Once I did a group ice-breaker by asking each member to say what was the most outrageous thing they could imagine doing.  By the time the group was finished, each person was a little more in touch with what they really wanted—and that their requests were not so far out.

Who do you want to be when you grow up? What is the vision you have of your life? There are many great examples out there in the sports and motivational books for the power of visualization for creating change and better strategies for life. I cannot over-emphasize the power of these mental phenomena. I once had a client who felt like he was going nowhere fast, so in a session I asked him to pretend that ALL obstacles had been removed and he could have, be, or do whatever he wanted to do in the world. I let him think about it a minute and then asked him “Now, what do you most want?”

He looked at me and said, “I’d really like some camping gear, maybe a tent and a sleeping bag.” His future vision was pretty small. In fact, it barely reached past his nose. Many of us believe that a person is more likely to make right choices in life if they have a long-range view or sense of themselves in mind. Find stories that illustrate this.

Making our Fortune: This type of story highlights our desire for independence and becoming our own person. We could also call them quest stories. The young one goes off to seek his fortune and comes back having fulfilled the quest. As you can tell, there is a lot of overlap in these simple categories of stories.  I lay this one out as separate because in the “making our fortune” type of story, we also long for that acknowledgement by our community that yes, we have actually come back with our fortune. This is, basically, a rite of passage or initiation story.

Romance stories: After finding the right career, perhaps one of the primary concerns of young people is making the right choices in finding a life partner. These stories take us to the realm of the heart—finding our life mate, creating rich relationships, and having regard, love, and a rich personal romance. Be careful not to present only the Cinderella, happily-ever-after romances. As much as we all wish it were like that, we need to learn many, many strategies for having successful relationships. These stories also contain many values and future vision stories and should encourage our young to be true to who they are within their relationships. Share your own stories about how you found your partner and what it really takes to keep love alive.

Case studies and self-help books can be a good source of stories that outline the many careful steps that we must (or must not) take in order to build solid personal partnerships. These can also be helpful. We have all picked up psychology books and scanned the pages looking for the examples that parallel what we ourselves are experiencing.

There are probably many story types I’ve forgotten, but what is important to remember is that we want to think ahead so that we match our storytelling to the constantly unfolding development of our young people. Again, a good story is the right story at the right time. It’s important for children to see the process by which their elders came to be Elders. Stories that relate most directly to their current experiences are the best. When Kayna was afraid of her first day of school, I didn’t turn to her and say, “Don’t be afraid. There is nothing to be scared of.” That isn’t good enough. The brain doesn’t understand the word don’t. It needs specific examples and explanation. No, instead I joined her reality with a story of my own fear of my first day at school. I showed her how I overcame my fear—and did not wet my pants.

The best parent/storyteller will be the one who has thought through his or her stories carefully and can present them in complete packages. This means not conveniently editing out the hard or embarrassing parts of the difficult process that brought the story to a conclusion. This does not mean that our stories must always have a happy ending. One of the hard facts of life is that it sometimes takes us decades to learn from a single bad choice. Better to tell the truth. In truth, we would all like our children to be able to skip over the long, hard parts of gaining maturity but this robs them of being able to discover the texture and weave of their own life fabric.

On another note, we must also limit our stories if they will somehow burden the child.  During a recent showing of our film, Video Letters from Prison, an ex-prisoner said that he realized he must not pass his own pain onto his children.  That pain he must carry alone.

Hostile Storytelling

Finally, there is one note I want to make here about what constitutes bad storytelling. Bad storytelling is hostile, told only to humiliate, poke fun at, dump guilt on, or put our own heads above another’s. We do not tell stories to lift ourselves above others and show how smart we are to the dumb listener. A good story lifts—it does not degrade. Likewise, when a child or young person tells you one of their stories, take it as a gift. Never use it against them at a later time.  Telling stories requires an atmosphere of trust and respect that enriches the soil for future storytelling.

Poking fun at, teasing, or embarrassing a child with stories is an acceptable use of the story. One of the most destructive forces in any family is this use of what I call hostile humor. Hostile humor often masks all the unspoken resentments and hurts of a family’s daily life. When communication isn’t possible, we turn to hostile humor and then deepen the destruction by saying “What? Can’t you take a little joke?”

Don’t turn to hostile humor as a way of calling out flaws and faults. If you hear it done between brothers and sisters, call them on it immediately. If you see children in the neighborhood picking on one other child, stop them instantly. We cannot condone this behavior. If there is a show on the television that pretends that sarcasm, ridicule, or violence is funny, shut it off now.  If a movie or program doesn’t tell stories that match the values and strategies that you want your child to have, then push the power button to off. We have far more control over what goes in than over what comes out later.

The truth is, bad stories are everywhere and one of the most important jobs as a parent is to monitor the flow of junk material into the child’s brain until he or she is able to learn discrimination. We monitor the noxious gases in our homes, the exhaust system of our cars, the foods that go in, the language we use—and yet we do not monitor the material that is fed daily into the unsuspecting young brain. Beware of bad storytelling.

What are my stories?

At first we may think that we have few stories, that our stories are not too interesting, or that our life has been dull. However, if we look a little closely, we’ll find stories in the most unlikely and easily overlooked places. I remember reading a book once where the author sug-gested I walk through my house and see where I could find “me” in the house. The exercise was quite informative. In fact, I finally found “me” in a small box of letters and trinkets from my youth, and in one single picture hanging on my wall. It seemed sad that I could find none of myself there in my own home.

Today, my house is full of my stories. Beneath my pretty gas fireplace is a wooden platform filled with the rocks I collected from the many bodies of water and far away places we have visited: quartz, river rock, slate, granite, sandstone bowls with small balls inside of them. I remember the story behind most of the rocks and have written Rio Grande or Lake Superior on the bottoms of others. I love those stony stories beneath the source of warmth in my house.

A story can be simply the time I cranked the car window down and suddenly felt the air on my face and knew I was awake. A story can be in one small finger of my newborn baby as she reaches for empty air.

If you like to write, take a pen and start writing. If you like to carry a little hand-held recorder, tell your stories on tape. These are your stories and it’s likely that many of them match the experiences your child or children are going through right now. Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down The Bones, suggests we do ten minute timed writings that begin with opening state-ments. “What I remember most about . . . the kitchen of the house I grew up in, or the first day of school . . .”  Write until the words run out and then begin again with, “What I most don’t want to remember about the kitchen, the first day . . .” You don’t have to be a “good” writer to engage memory this way—and you will be amazed at what flows out of your pen.

To assist in finding stories in our lives, here is a list of suggestions for scanning personal experiences for stories. This is another list but, as you read it, stories will come hopping out of the bushes like bunnies. Capture them and take a look. See what pulses there, what lessons were learned. Remember the sounds, smells, and sensations that went with the story.

First experience with: Death, starting school, finding your best friend, beginning a romance, sex, alcohol, drugs, first job, fight, menstrual period, major achievement, win, getting in trouble, realization of something, being a new kid in school, solo drive, encounter with danger, philosophical thought, good idea, hunting experience, competition with others, humiliating experience.

Personal Demons: Personal encounters with fear, lust, jealousy, anger, greed, rage, violence, sadness, despair, depression, etc.

Encountering our inner demons successfully moves us from one life stage to another. We can’t build soul and strength without taking them on face to face. These negative experiences, when met forcefully, provide powerful turning points that allow us to shift direction toward the life we most want.

Gods and Great thoughts: Encounters with joy, extrasensory experience, awareness of the universe, awareness of spiritual world, ghosts, mysteries, strange moments, déjà vu’, great teachings, great souls, synchronicity, and religious experience.

There is a reason that young children on up through adolescence are enamored with ghost stories, time travel, aliens, and outer space. They long for a wider awareness of how the universe works. They want mystery and magic. Just recently I was scanning the books available in the youth section of the local bookstore. Fully half to three quarters of the book had something to do with space or the supernatural. We can fear this trend—or we can understand the intrigue and meet it.

Events: Car accidents, moments of danger or greatness, birth of a child, a new home, approval from a parent, graduations, proms, being trusted with a specific task, meeting your mate, marriage, entering college, travels, meeting a teacher, events of child’s life, etc.

Sometimes from our greatest hardships comes the greatest leap of development. We can share these stories with our children, and recognize the potential when they face their own difficult events.

Stories that surround questions: What is the meaning of life? How big is the universe? Why is there war? What does it feel like to die? Will I like being an adult? Why does he treat me that way? How does a chicken cross the road? Why are we killing the earth? What do we need money for? Why can’t I live in a hut in the woods and be left alone?

It has been my experience with my children that they love to examine stories that push their understanding beyond known limits. Kids want to know. They hunger to know even when there are no answers. Like an empty belly, we can feed this other belly with stories and questions.

Stories that pose situational ethics: What would you do in this instance? Four people are on a deserted lifeboat but there is only food and water for three. What do you do? A person is caught in a burning building and there are only moments to act—you are the only one there. You find a million dollars in a bag on the side of the road. What do you do with it? Your aging mother/grandmother is slowly dying from a terrible disease—and she asks you to end her life. What do you do?

Posing these questions to children pushes them to scan their values and beliefs in a discovery process. They may have strong ideas but not realize it. Posing situational moral questions such as these brings a lively exchange and offers the opportunity for other stories.

Historical Stories: Historical stories place us in time, and give us identity. This may include stories about the family, the ancestors, the homelands, the community in which we live etc. Where did our family come from? How did we get here? What events have had a powerful effect on us? What was grandmother like, grandfather like? What did they do for a living?

Children may not realize that they hunger for these stories until, like me, with my great grandfather and my mother, it was too late. I found so little when my mother died and didn’t realize how much I wanted to know about her. Gather the stories while you can.

This list, again, is incomplete, intended only to stir the pot of our own memories for possible stories that could be used in the initiation and teaching of our young people. They want to know our stories.  The younger our children are when we begin telling the stories, the firmer our lines of communication will be. They’ll find our stories more engaging, more interesting, and more relevant than a video game or a television program.






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What’s Your Story? — 2 Comments

  1. Jamie, I’m on the brink of writing again! I miss my Wyoming Writers!!! My life has changed so much, mysweet husband passed away just after Thanksgiving and although I knew he was so ill I’ve had a hard time coping! I also fell in the grocery parking lot and broke my right arm in to places and that cast plus other things stoppedmefrom writing for awhile! Then I had to have surgery on my right wrist for carpal tunnel and now the base of my thumb interfers with my typing!

    I have about 5 more stories for my 2nd Red Dirt book, it is also about people in my life as a child. I need to get in touch with Andy too!

  2. Jamie, I never knew until today what some of my own experiences have been called, but you nailed it with hostile humor: “When communication isn’t possible, we turn to hostile humor and then deepen the destruction by saying “What? Can’t you take a little joke?” The informative part of this for me is naming the root cause…”when communication isn’t possible.” Hostile humor disconnects and shames.

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