Monday, May 22, 2017

Parables for Pre-Schoolers: Using Story to Sooth and Teach

"Ladies and gentlemen, the story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the (not so) innocent..." 

It happens with depressing regularity. Everything is going along smoothly. Maybe not perfect, but OK. They're dressed, they're clean(ish), they're about to be fed, and - BAM - you're dealing with a tantrum. Maybe she wanted nuggets instead of PB&J.  Maybe she didn't want to wait in the other room until you were done working with an older sibling for school. Maybe she didn't want to wear the pants you picked out. Maybe it's the classic "my plate is the wrong color" melt-down. You try to calm her down, to offer compromises without caving into her terrorism, but it's not working. The emotions are out of control, and there's nothing to do but plop her in her room with the door shut until she works through it.

The tricky part for me is what to do next. After I've got my own calm back and it's time to "re-integrate," my inclination is to lecture, explain in minute detail what the child did wrong, ask for them to acknowledge their fault, and then expect her to please Get Over It so we can move on with our day.

Since this almost never works, I've come to rely on another technique that I stumbled into when my oldest (now days from his 8th birthday) was a toddler: story telling.
Instead of explaining to a still-sobbing pre-schooler "Lucy, you're up here because you threw a big tantrum when you got an orange plate instead of a purple one," I ask her if she wants a story about Magnus, Anna, and Ida, the trio of monsters I invented for James when he was little. Sometimes she'll say "yes," and sometimes she'll ask for one about Poppy the Rabbit instead.
This afternoon was a "Poppy" day.
My little "Bunny"

So I jumped in.
"Most of the time, Poppy is an obeying bunny rabbit. But sometimes, Poppy is a disobeying bunny rabbit instead. Usually, Poppy is very good at 'getting what she gets, and not throwing a fit,' but sometimes that fit starts before she even knows what's happening.
Well, one day Poppy was really excited for her favorite lunch of carrots. Mommy made everyone a plate: she made one for Boppy, and Floppy, and Moppy, and finally she gave one to Poppy. But this time, Mommy did something Terrible. Instead of giving the purple plate to Poppy, she gave it to Moppy! And Poppy was MAD. Before she even knew it, she was crying and crying. Because Moppy wouldn't give her the purple plate!
Mommy tried to help Poppy calm down. She reminded her "You get what you get and you don't throw a fit!" Then she asked her to take some deep breaths to calm down. She even counted down from five to give Poppy a chance to get quiet. But when the counting was done, Poppy was still angry and she still wasn't willing to eat her lunch on the ugly orange plate.
Mommy told her, "I'm sorry Poppy, but you will need to go to your room to calm down. When you're ready to eat your lunch without fussing about your plate, you may come back." Then Mommy took Poppy by the hand and lead her to her room.
But Poppy was still angry. As soon as Mommy left, she threw open her door and stomped into the hallway. "I don't want to stay in my room, and I don't Want the Orange Plate!" she shouted.
Mommy came back to Poppy's room. "I'm sorry, sweetie, but I am going to have to lock your door, because you didn't chose to follow my instructions."
Now Poppy was Really mad, and she shouted and kicked for what felt like Hours (but was really only a few minutes) until Mommy and the other Rabbits finished their lunches. Then Mommy came back to Poppy's room.
She hugged her and held her. Then she asked Poppy to look around her room with her and find things some orange things that made Poppy happy. They found a book, and a toy, and a stuffed animal, all with pretty orange colors. Finally, she asked if Poppy was ready to eat lunch with no more fussing.
Poppy was. In fact, Poppy was happy to eat lunch on her pretty orange plate.
When Poppy was really calm, she thought back and realized that when she made good decisions, Mommy always gave her more choices. But when she made bad, disobedient choices, she started losing choices like having her door open and unlocked. 
Well, the next day, guess what? Mommy made a mistake again. This time Poppy got a blue plate. Poppy wanted to throw a fit, but then she remembered: good choices mean I get more choices! So she made sure she didn't cry or fuss, and Mommy was so happy with her! In fact, Mommy made sure to ask Poppy what color cup she wanted her carrot juice in!"
By the time we got to the part about Poppy finding orange things that made her happy, Lucy was ready to participate. And by the time we were done with the story, Lucy was ready to eat her own lunch on the orange plate.

Now, my kids are not idiots. They know that their troubles are being given nearly unmodified to Poppy or one of the Monster kids. But somehow it works anyway. That one level of remove seems to give them the distance they need to consider their situation with new eyes and less defensiveness.

Admittedly, it works better with my four-year-old than my eight-year-old, but even he occasionally gets a Magnus story to help him through a tough experience.

"But I'm not CREATIVE enough to make up a story on the fly," you protest.
Don't be intimidated. You're not trying to be the next Caldecot Medal winner; you just want to give your kid a new perspective with a story. If you want to change a few detail, feel free, but mostly you can (and should) stick to the facts.

Still seem kinda scary? Here are the basic steps:

1) Invent a character or characters to represent your child and anyone else involved in the real life events. Not feeling super creative? Chose a favorite stuffy or doll. Or, you can always punt and use a character from a favorite show.
2) Tell a story about this character having exactly the same problem as your child, reacting in exactly the same ways, and experiencing the very same consequences.
(Sidebar: This may be time for rather more honesty than you'd like, especially if you happen to have reacted with less calm and composure than you wish. Feel free to mention that the "Mommy" in your story felt badly about having lost her temper and apologized to the child in the story. Maybe you need some distance too?)
3) When your story arrives at the current moment, make sure that your character models the response that you hope for your child.
4) As a postscript, consider retelling a portion of the story set sometime in the future in which a similar situation takes place. This time, however, the character remembers his or her lesson and responds in the mature, reasoned fashion you're trying to develop in your child.

If your kids are anything like mine, you may find this a very useful tool to tuck away in your box for when lecturing just isn't cutting it!

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