Mimi, Tell Me A Story

Cooper (7) and Brayden (5) are going through a stage where they want me to tell them stories all the time. Not fairytales, REAL stories about things that really happened to me. Like the time I broke my ankle in a bicycle accident….the time our school bus fell on its side into a ditch…or the time an elephant charged at me while traveling in Africa.

They want to hear these stories over and over again. Just when I think I’ve told them every possible thing I can remember—something else pops into my head.

Last week, I read that hearing stories isn’t merely for entertainment, it’s a powerful teaching tool that prepares us to face issues that arise in our life. For children, especially, it’s like a dress rehearsal on how to face future problems. It’s a reassurance that they will survive accidents, dramas and unexpected events—just like we did.

In a culture saturated with storytelling (books, radio songs, movies, YouTube), kids favorites are still the true stories about their family or what THEY did as a baby.

I don’t guess this is surprising, though. Jesus used the same technique by telling parables to his listeners. His life lessons about mustard seeds, lost coins and wandering sons were passed along through storytelling. Since writings were unavailable to common people—word of mouth was the only venue, and eventually, whole communities knew these stories. Can’t you image the philosophical discussions about lost sheep that occurred around the water wells?

Today, people are holding the same types of “lessons learned” discussions around the water cooler and on Facebook, but the stories are circulated via books and screens instead: There’s no place like home. Don’t trust the wolf on the way to Granny’s house. A kind boy with friends can overcome evil Voldemort.

True, sometimes it is hard for a mere Mimi to compete with television or tablet—but I’ve found some ways around that. I tell the boys stories in the car, at the dinner table, and at bedtime when they spend the night. I remember when Brayden was about four, I was reading him some picture books before lights out. He stopped me and said, “No, I want stories from your mouth.” It’s a phrase he’s used many times since when he wanted me to tell him a “real” story.

I like this quote from the book Turning Memories Into Memoirs: A Handbook for Writing Lifestories by Denis Ledoux. “We want stories to reassure us that the inner strength we can muster will be sufficient against self-doubt, loss, grief and disappointment…It’s not out of idle curiosity that your children and grandchildren want to know about you and your life. Your stories have power, and if they are preserved, they can offer meaning and direction for your children and grandchildren.”

I was thinking about that last weekend during a 5 hour road trip with Brayden and his mom, Leah. I must have spent 3 hours of that trip telling Brayden stories “from my mouth.” I wanted to make sure that I was reinforcing some life lessons at the end of each story, so I started asking, “Why do you think I did that?” or “Here’s what I learned from this situation….was that a good choice?” We had some good discussions—and he really seem to get some of the important points!

The boys favorite stories are about the girl that lived across the street while Laurie and I were growing up. She was the only kid we had to play with, so we had to endure her–but she ran wild and did all kinds of shocking things, like stuffing a wet cat into our mailbox, tying me to the basketball pole and going home for lunch, and being a general bossy britches.

We had a ditch in the front yard that connected to the creek alongside our house. Every summer, thousands of water snails would get into the creek and start laying egg sacks. Laurie and I spent a lot of time playing with those snails or taking them home as pets. One day, bossy britches was mad at me about something and she started jumping up and down on the snails, intentionally killing them.

I don’t lose my cool often, but I could hear the sound of hundreds of shells cracking. I snapped. I started yelling at her, “I can’t believe you are killing hundreds of innocent snails on purpose—you are a murderer and I don’t want to play with you ever again!” She looked shocked. I’d never stood up to her before. As I recall, I didn’t talk to her or play with her for several weeks after that. It was a big deal in my kid-world, that, and the fact that she gave me wide berth for a time.

Cooper and Brayden delight in hearing that story. They think she is the meanest person on the planet! I use that story as an opportunity to talk about bullying. It’s a tricky lesson, because I don’t normally advocate yelling at people when they make me mad–but in this rare case, I felt righteous indignation down to my core, probably much like Jesus did when he found his temple turned into a market. Aren’t some wrongs worth standing up for?

I know that between the family stories and the Bible stories they are learning—these two boys are being well-coached for the future. They are versed in showing compassion like the good Samaritan. They know that if you throw snowballs at someone’s face, you can break their glasses (right Laurie?). They know that when they turn 15, they should not sneak off in my car and wreck it like their Daddy did. At least I hope they’ve learned that lesson, because I’ve preached it often enough!

As a writer, I constantly hear that children’s books shouldn’t be preachy—that kids should be free to develop their own conclusions about a story. I think there is entirely too little guidance going on these days—and that questionable television shows and mainstream media are now shaping society’s current belief system. I see every conversation with a child as a golden opportunity to teach them the Biblical principles they need to live by, and when they ask me for a story, they’ve handed me that opportunity.

From now on, I’ll be infusing a little more “moral of the story” chatter as I tell them about the time I taught inner-city fourth graders…got lost in Munich…traveled with an acapella singing group…took a boat down the Amazon river…or had to be rescued on a skiing trip. Real stories where I learned a little about life.

P.S. The boys don’t know that I wrote this article last night, but this is too coincidental not to share. A few minutes ago, Cooper asked me to tell him a story while he ate supper. I said, “Sure.” He said, “Mimi, one of the best things about you is that you tell stories.”

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Filed under Inspiration for Writers, My Philosophy on Writing

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