Some of this is material I posted years ago, when no one read this, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted it to all be about. I kind of liked it then, and it was the beginning of figuring myself out. Now that there are ten or fifteen of you reading, I thought I’d brush it up a little and share it with you again. Because in storytelling, the words are the least important part…
I could totally have titled this “How to Hold Your Kid’s Attention for Three to Five Minutes,” but that sounded too modest. I prefer to make grandiose claims and then hedge my bets later. That’s just my style. So, cards on the table, no matter who you are, you can tell a jaw-dropping tale, but if you can make it last longer than five minutes, you advance to master status. Still, five minutes of riveted attention is the Mount Everest of parenting. So.
Okay, it’s not. (Again with the grandiose claims.) It’s more like the Pike’s Peak of parenting. Because we all know the Mount Everest of parenting is getting a kid to sleep for eight straight hours. I’m sorry to say I have no tips on that.
So, back to our original claim that no matter who you are, no matter who your kids are, no matter how boring the story, you can make it into something your they will want to listen to. It’s all in how you tell it.
Of course, like always, context is everything. For example, I don’t recommend trying to tell your kids the story of how you buttered your toast while you are walking the magical streets of Disney World. I’m guessing that story will be better told on a rainy day when your television has exploded. But still…
1. Make it about people they know, preferably themselves. If you’re telling a story from your own childhood, you’re already halfway there. But if you are telling a story about a princess trapped in a castle or a cowboy riding the range, name the main characters after your kids. We even used to tell the story of “Ellielocks and the three bears” around our house. It was a favorite. I could get all philosophical and talk about how we’re all narcissistic at heart, or I could get all pedagogical and talk about how the use of their name triggers their imagination to place themselves in the story. But that sounds like too much work, so instead I’ll pull a mom and say, “Trust me. They’ll eat it up.” The younger the kid, the more they will love this one. The older ones may rebel. But then, if your kids are older, you’re used to that by now.
2. Use a goofy voice. I don’t care how atrocious your British accent is. Your kids don’t care either. Try it out on a story. I promise it will make it seem scarier…or funnier…or at least weirder. Okay, so your spouse will probably laugh at you. You might want to save that one for when you’re alone with the kids. But you can give characters in stories any old voice you want. Telling a story about your old math teacher? Give her a witch’s voice. Telling a story about a talking dog? Make him French. And do you think you are terrible at using different voices? Join the club. If you can’t do an accent to save your life, you can still try making a character talk really slow or really fast, really high-pitched or really low. It works just as well, and anyone can do it. Well, anyone who isn’t afraid to sound silly. And if you are afraid to sound silly, you’d probably better stop reading this right now.
3. Ask questions. Let the kids get involved in the story. Sometimes they are just questions to see if they understand. “Once upon a time there was a heliotrope. Do you know what a heliotrope is? Me either. Let’s Google it.” Sometimes they are questions to get them guessing. “And then the monster came in and found the girl, and what do you think he did to her? No, he didn’t eat her. He TICKLED her!” Some questions are just for interaction. “The only food he had to eat was dry, moldy bread. Do you like dry, moldy bread? If that was all you had to eat, what would you do?” Questions are particularly good for stories the kids have already heard a thousand times. “Wait, where was Little Red Riding Hood going? Her grandmother’s house? Why would she want to go there? Was she hoping to get eaten by a wolf?”
4. Move. Shout. Be Alive. You know what I mean. You don’t want to do it when you’re tired (which, let’s face it, is all the time), but it works every time. If someone is going to jump out and yell, “Boo!” You’ve got to jump. You’ve got to yell. If a bee is dive bombing you, swat it away, for goodness sake. If you broke the chair because you’ve been eating too much porridge, have the grace to look surprised and a little ashamed. If you can fall on the floor, all the better. It’s actually pretty fun. Storytelling, like so many great parenting things, can be a chance to be a kid again.
5. Break out the sound effects. This one pretty much goes along with #4, but it takes slightly less energy. Nothing makes their eyes go wide like someone’s footsteps on the stairs “creak…creak…creak” and the door slowly opening “squeeeeaaaak.” And let me tell you, my sound effects are laughable…and not in a good way. But my kids have never complained. (Though to be honest, they have mocked a little.)
6. Never underestimate the usefulness of the dramatic pause. When their attention starts to waver, spice things up with a little silence. Take, for example, your toast buttering story. Right about the part when you put in on the plate and get the butter out of the fridge, things start to get a little dull. That’s when a pause can be the most effective. “I got the butter out of the fridge…(long pause)…and I opened the lid…(long pause accompanied by a look of suppressed excitement)…and what do you think I saw? (long pause…by now they are expecting alien symbols to be carved into the butter or a perhaps a severed finger) I…saw…that someone…SOMEONE…had used all but a tiny bit of the butter!” I know…the payoff is totally not there. But I’m telling you, the dramatic pause has given you three distinct advantages: 1)They were listening for those 45 seconds, 2)That tiny bit of boring butter is still about 100 times more interesting than it was before, and 3) You bought yourself some time to think up an alternate and maybe more interesting ending. Because maybe that dramatic pause didn’t just inspire your kids. Maybe it inspired you. Maybe on the spur of the moment, with the full knowledge of how boring your story is, you decided that what you really saw that morning was a big bite out of the butter and that your house is likely infested with butter eating monsters. Don’t underestimate yourself. It could happen. Inspiration comes to us all when we’re least expecting it.
Okay, that’s it. Names. Voice. Movement. Questions. Sound Effects. Pauses. You can handle that. So go do it!
It only takes five minutes! (And a little bit of your dignity.)