My daughter loves to hear stories of terrible fates befalling people and animals. Dog bites, broken bones, illnesses, car crashes, and pet deaths are all favorite topics. She asks to hear them over and over, many stories in succession. Sometimes I don’t have the emotional energy to tell a story about my close friend driving drunk and going to jail. I ask, don’t you want to hear some other kind of story? I’ve got lots of good stories! No, no. Tell it again.
We discussed children’s enduring love of these types of stories at the Forest Kindergarten training I attended in June of 2016. The facilitators brought it up, because when you model risk and allow risk, (which we want to do), sometimes stuff happens. Unfortunate stuff. Falls. Skinned knees. Cuts. Sometimes a broken bone or a chipped tooth. Snakebites; they emphasized snake bites, for those of us really doing this outdoors thing. (Do we really need to do this? Yeah, kinda–the research is pretty clear about the benefits of risky outdoor play in natural environments. As you have probably already read, we are being good parents by not just allowing this but actively encouraging and modeling outdoor adventures. After this, put down your phone and go find a tree to climb.)
So why do kids want to hear horror stories about people who took a risk and got hurt? Wouldn’t you think that hearing these stories would make kids scared to try anything? Somehow, it’s the opposite. Kids beg to hear these stories of adversity, as we are all sitting here, survivors of these trials. I broke my arm, it hurt, and I got some cool stories out of it. See this scar? That’s where Uncle Jeff crashed the ATV and it split his leg open to the bone, and yet here he is, healed. And I’m realizing that this even applies in a story where the protagonist dies. That happened, and still, we are here to tell the tale.
There’s a book that illustrates this, Mo Willems’ City Dog, Country Frog. A pair of friends meet, they grow in their friendship, and at some point, one of the friends is gone, and the other one is sad. It’s profoundly sad; reading this book as an adult, who has known loss, we inevitably read it as the frog has died. If young children understand that, they don’t usually betray it. The friend is just gone. But in the next short chapter, City Dog makes a new friend, as one does. Spring brings renewal, cuts heal, bee stings stop hurting.
I read some research a few years ago about how to foster resilience in children, because it was said that, more than avoiding trauma, more than warding off adversity, having resilience is the best predictor of a child’s sense of wellbeing as they grow. As I recall, one of the key ways we can foster resilience in children is to tell our children family stories, so that they have a sense of being connected to a long line of people, each of whom have lives, histories, tales to tell. Pair this with the knowledge that simply talking with our children conversationally (as opposed to mostly issuing directives) substantially improves their vocabulary, social-emotional understanding, and even later school performance. Now I add the consideration that lots of my stories convey practical knowledge about how to behave in order to achieve the desired results.
One of the kids’ favorite stories to hear is about the time my brother was bit by our grandfather’s dog. We didn’t really know my grandfather; we had only met him once before. On this visit, he had recently adopted a dog, who I describe to the kids as having been afraid of people, maybe because people had been mean to him before. But we wanted so much to be kind to the dog. We went out to where the dog was tethered outside, while the grownups were talking. We got down low, we went slow, we talked softly to the dog. But we could see that it was really scared of us. We could tell, because it shook like this (I shiver my arms, like signing “afraid”), and it whined like this (scared dog sounds), and it was even so scared that it peed on itself. So we really knew that when an animal acts like that, we should give it lots of space. But we wanted so much to show the dog that we were nice that we didn’t go away, we kept trying. And the next minute, that dog jumped out and bit my brother on the leg, so hard that it made two holes, in the front and the back, and we had to drive a long, long way to the hospital, and he had to get a shot, right in the “owee”.
And the kids marvel at the horror of getting a shot in an already injured place, and then they go back and want to repeat the signs of an animal in distress who needs to be given space. And then they show me some of their scars, and tell me their stories. And then they ask for more stories of resilience.