“Tell us a story!” my girls sang one evening. I distractedly launched into Little Red Riding Hood while I was chopping vegetables. I’m not at my most creative while in harried cooking mode. I prefer a silent room without children present. When I got to the part where the mother warns Red Riding Hood to stay away from the dangerous woods, I stopped myself and quickly edited the story. How can I have plans to take the girls back country camping and instill a love of nature if I tell this classic children’s story? I want them to understand realistic dangers and be cautious, but I definitely do not want them to have an inherent, unfound fear of nature.
Yes, of course a child shouldn’t be unaccompanied in a forest known to have a high population of bears, mountain lions, or wolves, and quite possibly that was what Charles Perrault was thinking of when he first published this tale in the 17th century. But I will be well versed in the local fauna before we venture into any woods. There is also a bit of the “don’t talk to strangers” theme in the story, which was the primary moral when it was first published. This is something I also wanted to edit a bit. You can talk to strangers, you just can’t go away with a stranger. Michelle Boykins of the National Crime Prevention Council discusses how “Stranger Danger” needs to be updated here.
So how did I change the story? I turned it into a story about Claudia, a little girl who played in the woods after she picked up oil and sugar for her mom at the village shop. Claudia met a bunny named Fawn, they became friends, and had some adventures together. Although this strained my creative brain cells, it was worth it. The girls loved it. And here’s a trick when your creativity is waning. You put the story in their court. “What do you think Claudia did when she found Fawn in the hollow log?” So I found that this story (which became an ongoing series of stories) served a few functions. It entertained, instructed, and engaged. I can create my own cautionary tales! Any intellectual, behavioral, psycho-social, or physical issue my kids may be dealing with at the moment can enter my story and help them process it. Awesome.
On the other hand, I don’t want to shelter my kids. Sometimes changing the story means telling the true, untold story. Whether it’s telling Herstory, the real story of 40 Acres And A Mule, or what Columbus was really up to. My kids know about slavery, the Holocaust, how babies are born (not made…we’re not there yet) and the treatment of Native Americans. Don’t ask me how these topics came up, but they did, and I didn’t shy away from it. Not surprisingly, these topics always bring out their natural compassion and curiosity. They ask a million questions with wide eyes, but they’re never scared. I don’t want them to grow up cynical and distrustful, but I do want them to know that humans do strange and awful things sometimes. I want them to understand the fear and distrust that causes those awful things to happen. Beginning to understand these complexities will help them process the crazy, complex behavior we see in people everyday and might help them not act crazy themselves.
While we’re at it, let’s think about changing our story, the story that runs through our heads constantly. It may be a self limiting story, or a victim story, the heroine who was wronged, or the dame who didn’t have enough time. “I’ll never be able to do that. It’ll take too much time. It’s too hard. I’m out of shape. I’m not strong enough. My parents are crazy. I don’t have enough support. I’m not funny enough. I’m ugly.” We’ve got to change that story. If we think it enough, we begin to believe it. While we change the story for our kids, let’s take a moment to tell ourselves that awesome story where we are amazing, lovely, and happy.