Friday, April 27, 2012

Story Telling Made Simple

The five words that can strike fear in any father’s heart at bedtime: “Daddy, tell me a story.” At the end of a long and stressful day, coming up with an original story that will captivate your child seems unbelievably challenging.  But you don’t have to be a playwright to create an entertaining story.  Here a few simple tips:

Start with the end in mind.  The great thing about making up a story is that you get to choose the moral to impart, so think of this first.  Once you come up with a simple lesson like “Be yourself” or “Don’t give up”, the plot will write itself.  Fill the story with memorable characters (silly names, funny voices) and put them in a situation that will eventually teach them the moral you chose.

Be derivative.  Your child will not check your sources or call the intellectual property police.  In fact, they will gain comfort from familiar story lines.  Draw morals and plots from stories you know, like “The Little Engine That Could”,  “The Ant and the Grasshopper”, or in my daughter’s case, “Return of the Jedi”. 

Remember the rule of threes.   Children and adults alike are drawn to ideas and stories that come in groups of threes.  Have your main character attempt something three times, or meet three different characters that help solve their problem. 

Foster creativity.  Encourage your child to participate by letting them fill in details like the names of the characters or where the story takes place.  As they get older, gradually have them provide more and more of the storyline.

Introduce new concepts.  Use story time as an opportunity to teach your children about geography, history, science, or languages.  Set your tale in a foreign country or a different century.  Make your story about an airplane that’s lost its lift.  Have a character speak a few simple words in French or Japanese.

With last night’s story, I found myself using all of these tips.  I started with the simple moral: “It’s good to try new foods”.  Spying my daughter’s pillow pet, I created a tale about a purple unicorn who lived in France.  “Purple” (my daughter chose the name) only liked to eat dandelions, despite her three friends, in turn, offering her carrots, potatoes, and truffles.   But soon she ate all the dandelions in her pasture, and all the dandelions in the surrounding pastures.  She looked and looked for more dandelions, but there were none.  So she tried the carrots, and at first she didn’t like them because they weren’t anything like her favorite dandelions.  But soon she thought they were quite tasty, and then she quickly tried potatoes and truffles, and loved them too.   Her three friends were so happy that they could share their favorite foods with her.

Nothing complicated, but it kept her attention and kept her involved as she suggested plot points and asked questions like “what’s a truffle?” 

Remember, the day will all too quickly arrive when your child feels too old for being tucked in and told bedtime stories.  But in this small window of time, you will create a lifetime of cherished memories.  Even into adulthood, your children will draw comfort from the memory of this shared bedtime ritual.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Coping with the Chaos

            In a previous post, I wrote about my neglect in reading parenting books.  Since then, I have atoned, but my reading list has become rather focused as I plow through titles such as Children with High Functioning Autism: A Parent's Guide, The Autism Sourcebook and Following Ezra: What One Father Learned About Gumby, Otters, Autism and Love From His Extraordinary Son.
Eight months ago, our son turned three.  The warning signs were disparate and insidious.  Many behaviors were perfectly typical for a boy that age:  repetitive activity, lining up toys, slower than his sister in learning to talk, fascinated more with objects than people, not acknowledging when we called his name. These characteristics were combined with glimpses of incredible brilliance: memorizing the alphabet, quickly solving puzzles, doing basic math, and reading words he had never seen before. 
His atypical behavior came into stark relief, however, when we put him in school.  He isolated himself from peers by hiding under desks and chairs. His seemingly willful disobedience was something far worse: he was oblivious to what his parents and teachers wanted him to do.  Crowds and loud noises quickly over stimulated him.  We realized that his repetitive behaviors and obsession with numbers and letters were a way to seek refuge from chaos.  And so our research began.  Books, articles, and discussions with friends gave credence to our suspicions.  The more we learned, the more we recognized other signs that we had shrugged off as “quirkiness”.
But we have also noticed behaviors that are simply who he is: his tremendous empathy when one of his siblings cries, his affectionate bear hugs, and his skill in navigating the Ipad.   As frustrating as he can be sometimes, his atypical personality and thought processes will be significant assets to him, and I would not want my son to be anyone else.  Our job as parents is to help him alleviate his current frustrations and anxiety by learning to communicate effectively and to cope with the chaos comes with being part of society.
I am grateful for many things:  our son got an early diagnosis, he is making great progress through various therapies, and he has a mother who has demonstrated unflagging optimism, patience and resolve in the face of this challenge.  My wife, by expertly achieving the precious balance of accepting our son for who he is and yet tackling his autism head-on, has taught me a great deal about parenting, love, and leadership.