How can children make sense of this cockamamie 21st century world? Why do airplanes fly, how do cars go, why is the sky blue, where do clouds come from? Is there really a world beyond the comforting boundaries of family, school, park, daycare? How dangerous is this unseen world? Will I ever be able to make sense of it? These are scary questions. No wonder many kids feel at sea. No wonder they withdraw.
An antidote: stories. Stories have structure and in this way they differ radically from the random bombardment of life events. Stories teach that life has meaning. It may not be perfectly visible, but it's there. I—along with the author of this story—will show you. Stories empower. Yes, life can be weird, confusing, even dangerous. But you can triumph—just like this story character did.
Kids get it all the time: be a good girl/boy. Grow up. Act your age. Use your words. Let so-and-so go first. Share. Children may not seem to hear all this, but they do.
To a child, what do all these admonishments turn into? An impossible standard. This is why children often see themselves as delinquent: I'm selfish. I don't share. I don't use my words. I steal (or if I don't, I want to). I throw screaming tantrums. I hit.
No one is naughtier than me.
What to do? We want our children to control their behavior but we don't want to burden them with guilt.
Try telling a story. Virtually every story ever written celebrates humanity. The heroes, at least the interesting ones, have foibles and warts and unattractive qualities. Sometimes more than a few. By reading or telling the stories, we're saying to our charges, we admire these characters and, similarly, we admire you. In fact, we love you. There is nothing you can do that will make us stop loving you. Yes, we want you to use your words, to share, to forgo the tantrums, but never forget how much we love you.
Who isn't afraid? The economy, the crumbling health-care system, global warming, crime, myriad world problems (Israel and Palestine, North Korea, the Ukraine). Yikes.
Read, or tell, your child a story and much of this fear fades into the background. Look, stories teach, these characters have resources—personal powers, loving families, friends. They can enlist the aid of strangers. They can deal with problems. And so can you. They are not helpless, and neither are you. The problems remain (of course they do) but our ability to handle them increases.
There is another fear-reducing aspect of stories: the physical closeness of the story reader/teller. Child can touch you, caress you, hug you. They vividly feel your comforting presence.
[Possibly in a sidebar: this is particularly true of bedtime stories. The room is dark, the teller is physically close, the shadows are far less scary. Lovely. Tell Me A Story In The Dark examines this warmth and love at length.]
Children love their families, their parents, their siblings (often it doesn't seem so, but they do). Their school chums, their daycare playmates, their neighbors, the kids in the park. This love is pure and unconditional. This purity is, arguably, the best thing about kids. Bless them.
But children often confuse love with dependence. Do I love you because you're you, or do I love you because you feed me, give me a place to sleep, take care of me when I'm sick, etc?
Stories teach the difference. There is nothing wrong with depending on people—everybody does. But there is in this life a purer, more selfless love. Love for family, for a parent, for a sweetheart. Love for God comes under this heading. Stories instruct on how this kind of love works.