My daughter had been home with me from Ethiopia for a couple of months. At 8, she was learning English quickly, and I spent most dinners telling her stories – myths, legends, fables, fairy tales – to fill her ears with words and her imagination with ideas. One evening, with my reserve of stories and my energy running a bit low, I pulled out a few flash cards I had made. Each of these cards bore a sticker with words such as “cooperation” or “honesty” or similar virtues, and I defined the words for her and asked her to think of an example for us to write on the back of the card. We came to the word “courage,” and I gave her a brief description,( although this was long before Lisa and I teased apart the six types of courage.) “Can you think of a time when you had courage?” I asked this child who had lost her family, her country, her culture and her language and still managed to smile every day.
“At Ethiopia, [at the orphanage] I don’t know you but I go with you,” she replied.
With this simple statement, she embodied a key aspect of courage our children must have: belief in a positive future. In the future there will be something better than this, and although I am scared right now I will keep moving forward in order to reach that future. I believe this is what stories can show us: the hero may face many challenges; those challenges may be physical, or intellectual, or emotional, or moral; but only by addressing those challenges can the hero triumph.
As a children’s book author, I have always believed that narrative and story are essential tools for survival and success. Stories show us many possible solutions to many possible problems, and a child who has heard or read many good stories has had many good examples to reflect upon (consciously or not) when presented with a challenge. I began my parenting by telling stories, and tried to note which stories my daughter wanted to hear over and over, because they were clues to the challenges she was facing, and it was the best way for me to work on attachment. For centuries, this was a key purpose served by telling stories: to pass on values, to inspire courage, to give the next generation the fortitude to become adults and do difficult things. I do think we can reconnect with the power of story to teach our children courage, and we can start by telling our own stories, and by making the old stories our own.
A year or so after my daughter came home I asked her about that day we first met, when her hand was placed in mine and we were escorted from the orphanage as a new family and we began our shared story. “Were you scared?” I asked. She nodded apologetically. I leaned close and whispered in her ear, “Guess what? So was I.”
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