Into the Forest: The Transformative Power of Storytelling

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Stories do more than just entertain, they transcend and transform.  For this reason, they can be one of the most powerful parenting tools.  Like a mystical forest, stories enchant and draw you toward them.  And, if you choose to enter, you and your child will leave transformed.

Why We Love Harry Potter

Monomyth: A timeless and universal pattern in stories, proposed by the late scholar Joseph Campbell who coined his version as the “Journey of the Hero”.

Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins and Luke Skywalker are all modern day examples of protagonists in the age-old monomyth.  Throughout history and diverse cultures, the plot of the epic story can be boiled down to a common journey:

A seemingly ordinary child is abandoned by his parents, thrust into the harsh realities of life, called to face off against evil, yet armed with good and a few comical companions, and is sequentially transformed through his journey and revealed as the “Chosen One”.  The young hero uses supernatural forces to succeed in defeating evil, typically sacrificing himself, and then HE redeems humanity.

“The collective unconscious consists of the sum of the instincts and their correlates, the archtypes.  Just as everyone possesses instincts, so he also possess a stock of archtypal images.”                                  -Dr. Carl Jung

If you consider the great world religions, myths and classics, you’ll see Joseph Campbell’s recurring monomyth (aka Journey of the Hero) in many main protagonists- from Moses to Prometheus.   The late Dr. Carl Jung explained this phenomenon as the result of a collective human conscious and while critics were unimpressed with his explanation due to its lack of scientific grounding, there is something to be said for Jung’s universal themes and symbols, also known as archetypes, that parallel the Platonic Forms (aspatial and timeless ideas).  Consider with me, humans everywhere respond with trepidation at the image of a snake, champion the underdog and long to see justice realized.  These universal ideas are what make the same old story appeal to the masses and transcend time and culture.

Platonic Forms: Everything in the Real World is but a shadow of its Ideal Form.  We can use our senses to experience the Real World, but we can only understand the Ideal Forms, which make up the inaccessible World of Ideas, through reason.  The Forms are innate, so learning is deduced to a process of remembering universal Ideal Forms.

Call them archetypes or Platonic Forms, common themes in stories are what unite and speak to us, and once more, transform and guide us.  Storytelling is culture’s great tool which can transfix our attention upon values and heal the soul.  It is difficult to think of any other tool which has been proven throughout history to be more powerful in forming minds than a good story.  For this reason, among others, storytelling is my tool of choice when guiding children through important lessons and I am confident, that if used properly, storytelling can transform your child and parenting experience.

Trade Lectures for Stories

Consider the most difficult moments in parenting.  They usually involve: a) trying to persuade a seemingly irrational child to behave rationally; or b) attempting to explain difficult topics like sex, death and why a child may not eat ice cream for breakfast.  As a parent, you can observe your child and determine when guidance is needed (ex: like when a child begins lying frequently or experiencing nightmares after Grandma dies), but it can be difficult to decide how to address their needs.

Most parents prepare a great speech to address the problematic issues.  However, while a lecture may not always be welcome, a story is always a desirable and accessible way to communicates life truths to children.  As you know, children do not always want to listen to parents talk at them, but they are always interested in cuddling up for a good story.

Unlike a lecture, a child is in control of the interpretation of the story and the story is, of course, entertaining.  Instead of being told what to think, a story allows the child to contemplate life, develop his own new ideas and connect these ideas to what he already knows. 

But, in order to utilize stories properly one must not overestimate or underestimate the readiness of children to confront certain life themes.

Overestimating Children’s Readiness

Adults, at times, overestimate a child’s readiness for a particular lesson and because every child gains the ability to process particular ideas at different times, it can be hard to know just when a topic should be addressed.

Luckily, stories shield a child from developmentally inappropriate topics.  To illustrate, your interpretation of Disney’s Frozen is likely very different from your child’s.  For the child, certain jokes will be missed and certain events in the plot will be glossed over.  She will draw on what she is ready to digest and dismiss the rest.  For instance, when the fateful picture of Elsa and Ana’s parent’s ship is covered with a dark cloth to denote their death, most young children will miss this event while older children will understand its cloaked message.

“For we can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.” – Plato

The human brain has effectively evolved to grasp and internalize what it needs to know to survive and thrive.  If there is no reference point for a new topic like death, then the theme will likely escape the child’s notice.  It is only when a child begins to realize that he, and those he loves, are mere mortals that death themes begin to pop out at children.

The fun begins when children ask parents uncomfortable questions before parents are ready to answer them.  The rule of thumb in gauging a topic’s appropriateness is that difficult questions should be addressed when the child raises them, but not necessarily the reverse.

Underestimating Children’s Readiness

Life in first world countries has improved so substantially over the centuries that we often take for granted the fact that death and deprivation use to be a regular life occurrence- children died, people were hungry, life was often cruel and nothing seemed certain.  Consequently, stories were told to help children prepare for and accept these harsh realities.

To learn more about utilizing play to help children understand and process life, click here.

The Brother’s Grimm are notable keepers of these stories and now, when we read their original fairy tales, we are often horrified at their contents.  Even Disney movies have evolved over the past fifty years and do not reflect the type of evil and themes that were present in the original Snow White and Sleeping Beauty.

We change classic tales, like Little Red Riding Hood, because it is much more pleasant to tell a story that relieves Little Red Riding Hood of the responsibility of having her granny swallowed by a wolf because she consorted with strangers.  While in the past, Western culture prepared children for how to maneuver the world independently, it now frowns upon children encountering life alone.  Thus, we have regressed in our willingness to teach our children particular lessons and in doing so we underestimate their abilities and readiness for life.

If we can abide in the fact that children who are not primed by their neurological development to be able to understand difficult themes, then we do not need to worry about their reception of concerning archetypes.  When children have bad dreams or make disturbing comments after hearing or reading uncomfortable topics, they are telling adults that they need more developmentally appropriate stories about this theme to help them process its meaning, not less.

Stories Allow Children to Learn from Their Peers

We know that storytelling appeals to our common experience as humans and that epic stories teach us that justice, good and truth will prevail over evil, but why?  Every human being can identify with Campbell’s Journey of the Hero because we all see something special within ourselves- a uniqueness that possess hidden talents and requires cultivation through life’s trials; and if we persevere, we will all realize our individual contribution to the greater society.

“A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.”                                        -Joseph Campbell

Humans crave meaning and we long to be needed.  Stories remind us of our potential, censure our weaknesses and hint at meaning in life.  They also require us to contemplate their content.  When we ponder, we learn. 

This is why Jesus of Nazareth taught his followers in parables and why Aesop chose fables to teach moral lessons 2,500 years ago.  Lecturing about an idea is far less powerful than allowing someone to discover the idea independently through storytelling.

But even more importantly for children, the cast of animal and child characters in stories allow them to learn these important life lessons from their peers.  Much research has been done over the years into the power of peer persuasion and in many cases peers have been shown to be more influential in the life of a child than his or her own family.  (The Nurture Assumption by Judith Rich Harris presents an accessible summary of this research.)

Children identify with the hero in epic stories, as they usually begin the story with a child protagonist or adorable animals that personify childhood experiences.  Reading a story about how Brother and Sister Bear learn to keep a clean room in the Berenstain Bears series is so much more effective than lecturing your child about why they should not keep their room in such an messy state.  The life experiences of storybook characters can transcend your child’s life so that he or she can learn how to confront similar situations.

The first piece of advice that I give parents when they ask me to consult on an issue their child is experiencing is to list story books which address their child’s challenge.  Additionally, the first place I turn to when my kids lie, color on the walls, have their feelings hurt, or lose a relative is my storybook collection.

Just this morning, I had a rough time with my four year old daughter.  We just could not get along.  Her sour faces started to wear on my nerves and so I declared a storytime, where I selected a book about Little Goosey and Gander Goose called Just You and Me.

Half-way through the story, after I had thrice repeated the refrain– “But I don’t want anyone else when the thunder comes.  Just you and me.”— she looked up at me, kissed my check and flashed me a big grin.  You see, Little Goosey taught my daughter a lesson that I couldn’t at the moment- our relationship is special to me, even on hard days, and I like it when it is just the two of us.



“For a man to conquer himself is the first and noblest of all victories.” -Plato

Transformation is waiting for you and your child.  It is calling you both from a distance, through the rustling of the leaves.  Hear the silence, feel the cool touch of the dew and sense the magic creeping about the thicket drawing you in further.  It is the Great Story known throughout time, told just for your child in a whisper that only he or she can hear.  Once you enter, neither you nor your child will ever be the same.