Book Review (Lengthy): Healing Stories For Challenging Behaviour

In Healing Stories For Challenging Behaviour (Stroud, UK: Hawthorne Press, 2008), Susan Perrow writes about the success she’s had using stories to inspire a shift in children’s behavior, in the contexts of parenting and Waldorf education.   Healing Stories gives advice for creating your own stories, as well as fifty plus stories that Perrow’s used.  The book is premised on the insight that stories speak to young children (per the book’s focus, roughly 3-8 years old) more effectively than straight logic does.  That makes stories a valuable resource for transforming all sorts of situations: from passing time on a car ride, to encouraging tidiness and other values, to dealing with situations ranging from a disappointing birthday present to divorce.

Now, I’m not quite the audience that Perrow imagines for her book.  She didn’t need to spend pages convincing me that stories are an effective tool for inner transformation or that I can write them myself, because improvising stories is already one of my main parenting tools for difficult situations.  I bought Healing Stories because my experience with transformational storytelling comes from indie roleplaying–think collaborative improvisational storytelling, not Dungeons and Dragons–with other adults, and I’m interested in how people from other backgrounds might approach it, and in trying to figure out which grown-up practices need to be altered for children.  In particular, one of the key principles when you’re telling stories with other adults is to avoid turning your story into a message about how you think they should handle a situation or change themselves.  The same principle becomes a creative block when I’m thinking about children’s stories, even though it’s more appropriate to moralize to your kids than it is your friends.  At the same time, you can’t leave a story’s thematic statement up to your kid the same way you could leave it up to grown-up gamers, because kids have less of an active role in co-telling stories.  So how does transformative storytelling work for a younger audience?  

Perrow’s first step in crafting a story for challenging behavior is describing the behavior in its situational context and clearly envisioning the situation you want instead.  Then you choose a metaphor for the situation, and that metaphor becomes the core of a story–for example, a crab for a child who’s pinching friends.  As the story proceeds, its protagonist journeys out of an uncomfortable situation and toward wholeness or a more balanced situation.  The use of metaphor here is an important part of what makes a story effective, since metaphor lifts the audience out of its immediate context.  That move helps diffuse the power dynamics involved in an adult telling a child to act differently, but more importantly, the imaginative work that the audience does to connect their own lives to the story lets them learn the story’s new perspective.  (Perrow doesn’t explain this as thoroughly as she might, but her advice follows the pedagogical point that people learn by thinking through things themselves, not by having learning somehow poured into them.)  Telling the same story several times helps it sink in, and Perrow often ties the story to real world “props”–really, talismans–that help integrate a motif from the story into the child’s life.  For example, one mother made a bravery-inspiring crown to accompany a story about an injured prince whose crown had lost its shine when he decided to stay in the dark all the time.                                                      

I was relieved to find that Perrow shares my dislike of moralistic stories–kids aren’t keen on having stories told at them any more than adults are–but she shows that transformative stories don’t need to moralize.  In Perrow’s stories, the storyteller, audience, and protagonist are all on the same side, and the parent isn’t telling the child what to do so much as she’s showing her a path out of an uncomfortable situation.  So I tried to make up a story with that in mind… and I came right up against the same awkwardness I’d had with moralizing.  After reading more sample stories, I realized that the problem might be that I tend to use “every day the same thing happened… until one day…” as my story structure.  That structure creates stories where a challenging behavior suddenly has consequences that must be resolved.  It tends to sound like dressed up version of a lecture about consequences, and its focus is on the consequences as separate from and secondary to the basic behavior.  It’s unlikely to be effective for a child who’s still more focused on process than product, nor does its use of extrinsic threat represent the kind of morality I’d like to teach.  By contrast, many of Perrow’s sample stories take a view point that depicts the challenging behavior as inherently unpleasant to someone, not merely unpleasant in its consequences.  To that end, Perrow frequently tells stories from the point of view of inanimate objects, like boots who miss their partners when they’re not paired together.  She also loses the lecture-like quality by using exaggeration to make stories lighter and gentler.  

The major difference between my stories and Perrow’s is that most of our stories are made up on the fly, since Rebecca requests them non-stop when we’re at difficult junctures in our lives.  When Sibyl was born, I told semi-nonsensical wish-fulfillment stories with little narrative structure aside from repetition.  I don’t remember most of them, but the one we told most often started out with scarcity–both Pinky and the Tooth fairy wanted to collect all the teeth–and ended with a sense of wonder and plenty when Pinky realized that the Tooth fairy was actually doing something cool (planting the teeth so that they could grow into trees bearing the child’s sweetest dreams) and decided she’d go back to fairyland to help her.  The story’s message was that there was enough to go around, and I think it was as important for me to hear that as it was for Rebecca.

However, improvising also means that some stories slip through that aren’t as sanitized and wholesome as in Perrow’s examples.  Rebecca’s approach to stories is “tell me another story about…” over and over, and that structure virtually guarantees that eventually the storyteller is going to get past safe wholesome stories on the topic, and start creating stories that reflect other impulses.  I don’t think I’ve told Rebecca anything terrible, but I have told stories that I wouldn’t have chosen to tell, and I’ve noticed that my stories involve more guns when I’m annoyed.  Now, I know that talking until you get past your internal censor is one of the dynamics that makes storytelling potentially therapeutic for the teller, and indie roleplaying wisdom tells me that emotional authenticity makes a story more compelling for its audience as well.  But how should you alter those dynamics when the audience is a child?  If Rebecca keeps asking for more stories on the same topic, is it possible that’s she’s pushing because she finds that territory powerful, too? 

Healing Stories doesn’t offer much help on those issues, but its section on telling age-appropriate stories freaked me out.  As far as I can tell, Perrow gives standard Waldorf advice on the developmental fit of stories, but she doesn’t discuss what it’s based on, which makes it unclear what’s at stake in modifying it.  Since I’m already convinced that stories are powerful, I worry that telling the wrong stories could do harm instead of good.  They could become Antisocial Stories if Rebecca misunderstands their genre or applicability, or else entrench unhealthy lenses for viewing the world.  I think that happened last fall, when Rebecca described everyone else at school as a meat-eating dinosaur and herself as a plant-eating dinosaur, and I suddenly realized that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to constantly play out a division between meat-eaters and plant-eaters, even if Rebecca kept asking for it.

On the other hand, my approach to storytelling differs from Perrow’s in a couple ways that suggest I may not need to worry about telling the wrong story by mistake.  Perrow’s stories are designed to be repeated, but obviously I don’t need to repeat a story I don’t like.  The other important difference is that, as with roleplaying, my stories are interruptible and Rebecca can steer them out of territory she doesn’t like.  For example, after Sibyl was born, Rebecca requested a lot of stories about Pinky and her baby sister Ixsy.   The only one I remember is this one, which must’ve been the tenth in its series, and it was getting into personally relevant material, as I remembered how angry I used to get when my sister tried to imitate me.  But I only remember the story because Rebecca interrupted it:

Pinky’s baby sister Ixsy liked to imitate everything Pinky did, [there were examples here] and Pinky was getting tired of it.  So one day she decided to play a trick on Ixsy. Pinky put a bunch of plain spaghetti noodles on her own head, and said, “Look!  I have blonde hair!”  Then she gave Ixsy a bowl of spaghetti with spaghetti sauce all over it, so that Ixsy could do the same thing and have red hair.  If Ixsy put that on her head, she’d get spaghetti sauce all over her hair!  She’d have to take a shower!  And Ixsy was too small to close her eyes, so she was going to get water in her eyes!  But Ixsy picked up the spaghetti–

At that point Rebecca interrupted.  Her voice was fluttering, not her usual hyped up storytelling voice:  “And Rebecca sucked the sauce all off so none of it would drip.”  She saved Ixsy!  I was so proud.    Rebecca hadn’t been participating in the story up until that moment, and I’d almost forgotten that she was the audience.  It touched me that she’d care enough about the baby to jump into the story and save her, and it also helped me step back from superimposing my memories of having a baby sister onto Rebecca’s experience.  Meanwhile, Rebecca got to try on the role of helpful big sister. 

If a story’s transformative work is based on how its listener internalizes it and applies it to herself, then letting the listener actually insert herself in the story can facilitate that.  Or else it can make it feel harder to tell a transformative story, if your audience keeps interrupting or disputing your wholesome synthesis.  In some cases, that may be a sign that the story isn’t working anyway.  Perrow seems to suggest that the child’s enjoyment of the story is part of the transformative process, which means that telling a story that the child simply didn’t enjoy or that didn’t make sense to her isn’t going to work, and interruptions can help identify where that’s happening.  On the other hand, interruptions can also be a sign of enjoyment and engagement.  The issue here is that sometimes I’d rather have Rebecca enjoy whatever solution I’ve come up with, instead of solving the problem by trampling everything. (Railroading GM annoyed by players’ empowerment fantasies, story at eleven.) A storygame might have rules about narrative autority and start pulling out dice here, but since our stories tend toward repetition, I figure we can just tell both versions and maybe discuss what we like about them. 

Ultimately, I got what I came for with Healing Stories–namely, a better and more explicit approach to representing challenging behavior in story form, as well as some new narrative and storytelling tricks: using props, making heavier use of rhymes and repetition, etc.  I’ve watched storytelling work as a positive force in Rebecca’s life even while I’ve been writing out my concerns about the kinds of stories I’m telling or not telling.  For much of May, Rebecca kept co-telling stories about a magic metal box she had at preschool, which she’d retreat into whenever she needed downtime, and where nobody else could find her or get in.  Then one day, after we’d told the box story, she briefly cried about how things had changed since her sister got here, and then requested a new story based on a toy she’d just gotten.  She wanted to hear about how her dinosaur had been trapped in an egg, and how she rescued it.  I thought of how Perrow personifies objects, and elaborated that Rebecca was the only one who could hear the dinosaur calling for help, because Mom was too busy listening to the food in the refrigerator, which was begging to be cooked for dinner, and Dad was too busy listening to the computers that needed fixed, and then we told a story about how Rebecca rescued the dinosaur all by herself.  What struck me was the transformation of enclosure from a safe place to a trap.  Since then, Rebecca hasn’t told any more stories about running into her box.  She’s become very attached to the baby dinosaur she rescued (“Lemon Drop”), and I get the sense that things have been going well for her at school. 

3 replies on “Book Review (Lengthy): Healing Stories For Challenging Behaviour”

  1. Thanks for stopping by! I’m in California a couple hours up the coast from LA. I found your first book by accident while searching for something with a similar name, then decided yours looked far more interesting and got it as a Christmas present. I hadn’t realized there was a second book. It looks like they cover similar material, though, right?

    I’d love to review the new e-book, but not until preschool starts again in the fall.

  2. Hi – I was on a train from SF to LA in April this year so probably passed through your town! My second book has 101 new stories and some updated thoughts on how to write therapeutic stories (based on my work in practice over the last 4 years), and many ‘story bone’ exercises. Enjoy your summer holidays – talk again in the fall (your fall, our spring)

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