Ericksonian Story-Telling for Parents
by Zainal Abidin Rahman

Night after night, your children wait for you to tell them a story. Even though they are sleepy; even though they are almost in their teens. You sense their anticipation and enjoyment of your company and the strong bond that still binds them to you.

When you make your entrance into their room you cannot miss the excitement in their eyes and voices. “What story is daddy going to tell us tonight?” they whisper to each other. You know they look forward to this moment - story-telling time! When you read or tell them your story, they fall silent taking every word and gesture you make. They feel with the characters in the story – feelings of surprise, dismay, anguish, anger, resolve, anticipation and finally triumph and joy. They feel with the good guy in his journey in the story and get angry with the bad guys and anything that stand in his way.

When you are done with the story, you see the sense of completion in your children’s eyes. They have learnt the lessons. Justice has been served. The good guys always win. Good always prevail over bad. Success is a given if people are willing to use their minds and will. You decide what values they should grow up with.

That’s the power of stories - subtly teaching morals to your children without moralising. Especially when you compose your own stories and deliver them as well. That was how Dr Milton Erickson, the most accomplished psychotherapist, was able to influence people and help them changed to improve their lives. Simply by telling stories.

Why tell stories?
Stories have been used for thousand of years by all the great teachers from Socrates to Buddha to Jesus to Mohammad in their teachings. So stories have been proven over the ages to be effective, as can be seen where religion has such a hold on many people’s mind. Stories in short are used to:
• inform
• educate
• teach values
• inculcate discipline
• facilitate problem-solving
• help people change and heal.

When parents read or tell stories to their young children, the children tend to:
• love reading and learning
• possess superior general knowledge
• master a larger vocabulary
• have heightened self-mastery
• focus on tasks for a longer duration
• have better discipline
• generally do better at school.
• become a life long book reader

All that, on top of a healthy and cordial relationship between parents and children. Aren’t they worth the 10 or 15 minutes spent together just before tucking them into bed? You bet. But why are so few parents reading or telling stories to their children? The usual excuse of busyness and tiredness and just pure mindlessness, I suppose. This article serves as a reminder for parents to start or to continue reading stories to their children.

What stories can parents tell?
Sources of stories are all around us. They are found in our national libraries, in newspapers, in the daily affairs of people around us - your office colleagues, parents, siblings, friends and even crowds in the bus on your way home. We are never short of stories when we know where to look out for them.

Traditionally it is usual to borrow stories from the ancient Greek fables, ancient Chinese, Malay Indian sources as well as religious texts - the bible, torah, Koran or the bagavad gita. They are fabulous sources of very good stories that can be used to inculcate positive values in our children. However, learning to spin and tell your own stories in the Ericksonian tradition is what I want to elaborate here.

Write your own stories
“How do I write my own stories?” many parents have asked me. The task is not as daunting as one might imagine. But it does require a bit of imagination. Parents can use the 7-step process below as the structure to compose any story. In fact, if you had stayed rooted watching Raiders of the Lost Ark or any of the Harry Potter movie series on TV you can easily recognise the same structure in those and other movies.

The Seven - Step Story Structure

1 Set the scene
This is where the story begins. It could be at a school, a jungle clearing, or a beach setting. Or anywhere.

2 Introduce the characters
Paint some qualities, both physical and behavioural, of the main protagonist and the supporting cast. Make them human and believable. Use descriptive words of sight, sounds, feel, taste and even smell.

3 Begin the journey
Let the adventure unfold. What is the protagonist up to or where is he going? He could be heading for a vacation, or on his way up Mt Everest or working to pay for his higher education.

4 Encounter the obstacle
Describe the problems he has to overcome in order to get or complete his journey. The problem could be in the form of a bad guy or a physical one e.g. a steep hill where tigers roam freely that the protagonist has to pass through.

5 Overcome the obstacle
Explain how the protagonist overcomes the problems. Describe the effort he has to put in and the strength of character that enables him to win the day.

6 Resolve the story
This is where you begin the process of ending the story. In the end, what does he get when he completes the journey? It could be winning the hands of a princess or getting a special commendation from the Commissioner of Police for saving a person’s life.

7 Make the point
For children under eight, it is fruitful for parents to drive home the point or morale of the story. “This story teaches us that it’s important for us to …”. It could be the importance of honesty in their dealings with friends at school or putting in the necessary effort to achieve anything they want to achieve.

For children above eight, it is better to engage them in a question and answer dialogue after the story, asking them open-ended questions to prompt their understanding as well as their opinion on some aspects of the story. “What other things could the hero have done to overcome the problems in helping the family in distress?” “What could have prompted the bad guy to turn to his wayward ways?” Asking questions and patiently waiting for their answers, and in turn allowing them to pose questions to you and answering them. This interaction encourages children to open up and flex their imagination.

Pulling emotions
Having said so much about creating your own story I hope it is not a dampener to now add that the story line isn’t as important as the emotions you create out of the story. There are two types of emotions you want to elicit in children - the positive emotions and the negative emotions. You want children to feel negative emotions because that’s the reality - they will feel such emotions with their school work, with their teachers and with friends. We cannot shield our children from them. Better still is to inoculate them so that when they experience these negative emotions they know how to move on to a more resourceful emotion. And the way to make them feel the emotions is to describe the emotions and feelings that the protagonist and other characters in the story go though. They feel the emotions through empathy. So when you describe the negative emotions move on to feelings of hope, anticipation, triumph and joy.

You can easily weave in these emotions by adding the element of drama, suspense, mystery and surprise in the story line. You get to become the director of your own movie that plays (often repeatedly) in your children’s mind.

Telling the stories
Telling or reading your stories is perhaps the most challenging and interesting part of the whole venture. You get to interact face to face with your children. You are “on the air” so to speak. Your mental presence in the moment is crucial. The children can always detect the lack of it.

Should I read my story or tell my story? you my ask. Telling is better than reading, but reading is better than nothing at all. My advice to parents is get the story in print and when you deliver the story do it the story-telling way, so that your eye contact is always on the children rather than on the book. Later, give the story to them for their reading pleasure.

It is important to get into rapport with them. Be sincere and make it plain you are also enjoying the moment of story telling or reading. Use a wider range of your voice and gestures than you would otherwise use in your normal conversations.

You can also use several subtle techniques from Erickson that you can learn at Ericksonian workshops. There is use of quotations to insert in a teaching if you choose not to make it too obvious. For example, if you want your child to practice some self-management in his room you could tell a story that goes something like this:

“Now Terence was a good boy because he remembered what his mother said. “Please clean up your room in the morning”. Terence did as his mother said and he felt great in his tidy room.”

Another technique is the embedded command in which you lay more emphasis when you say certain action words which you may want your children to start doing. In the above example, you pause after ”…his mother said…”, look at the child in the eye, bend forward as if sharing a secret and say “Please clean up your room…” in either a whisper or a slightly enhanced voice.

Story telling requires artistry and creativity. It’s fun for both you, your spouse and your children. Start doing it. That story telling time - the 15 minutes you spend with them - before going to bed can be the defining moment in moulding your children’s personality, values and future life.

Zainal is a business trainer and coach specializing in personal and organizational change. He has worked with thousands of clients, individuals and corporate, and brings with him expertise in OD, HR, NLP, ericksonian hypnosis, Solutions Focus, Appreciative Inquiry, The Enneagram, energy psychology and various other effective modalities that create change at the personal and corporate levels. Contact:

Zainal is a business trainer and coach specializing in personal and organizational change. He has worked with thousands of clients, individuals and corporate, and brings with him expertise in OD, HR, NLP, ericksonian hypnosis, Solutions Focus, Appreciative Inquiry, The Enneagram, energy psychology and various other effective modalities that create change at the personal and corporate levels. Contact:

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