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Stories Stimulate Super Powers

March 17, 2019

Steven is 5. He loves a good story. His routine request I can bet he’ll make whenever I spend time with him. Last night he was saving the world in his Batman cape, flexing his muscles. Tomorrow he’ll be Captain America shielding a bad dude, or Ironman flying off to prevent catastrophe. But his all-time favorite character in the end is always himself.

Sounds so cliché and corny, and perhaps it is, but the important thing is that Steven, who loves an awesome story starring him and the people in his life, strives to be the hero. And what better superhero than one who looks, acts and thinks just like he does? One who lives where he lives, goes to school where he learns, and plays with the same friends? One who hates to brush his teeth, makes a bed without any help, digs the “Guardians of the Galaxy” soundtrack and falls asleep to the radio tuned to classical music because, “that music never runs out”?

Yep, he’s my 5-year-old hero.

Storytelling is a way for kids to see themselves more clearly, and it’s an instrumental way to imagine the possibilities. And trying on different roles helps a child to understand how he thinks and feels, as well as how and why he will develop and someday grow up.

Steven sees himself in all kinds of roles.

He’s a storyteller. I often hear him assigning voices to his Lego figures and his stuffed animals as he plays on his own.

He’s a writer and an illustrator. This time, he shares his Mr. Cheeseburger book he made with me.

He’s a designator. “Mom, please draw a red spaceship with stars.”

He’s a comic and a wrestler. Introducing, The Underwear Champions!

And he’s always a hero of some kind in the stories I tell him.

This week, he’s an award-winning scientist who writes I.T. programs to make the world a cooler place to live. Last week, he was a dragon-slayer rescuing his brother and cousins from the evil king. The week before, he was a super-sleuth making the case for uncovering historical buried treasure for the Smithsonian.

I’ll admit, I have as much fun imagining the narratives as he does. And Steven gets to be the person with the ideas and a plan. He gets to make things happen. I get to plant seeds.

We get to bond. That’s the very best part.

This week, he’s on a quest to capture a leprechaun. He has devised a trap with some recycled boxes, his mom’s old Tupperware, and a handful of rainbow gummy-bears, installing a tiny slide for good measure. And what started it? A storyline that had him, his brother and his cousins -- even his guinea pig -- standing watch to catch the little green magician on the eve of St. Patrick’s.

So here it is. Steven wants more stories told because he wants to be part of the story. He wants to be able to step into roles and try them on for size and see how they feel, how they work. Part of learning about the world in which we live is understanding that to stand over a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow can look a lot like a dream realized, and that realization starts with a story.

There’s usually an element of mystery or magic, or a challenge to face. There’s always a villain. Some of our basic themes? We gotta have a good laugh. Love conquers all, good wins over evil, and knowledge is power.

Full disclosure: At times, I dread the inevitable urgent request for a story because it means I have to stop and think and work to create something worth hearing. It would be so much easier to suggest a movie, a book or a game.

So how in the world can I make up a story on the spot? Here’s a tip: Follow your child’s lead, and try like heck to channel your own inner child. Keep it simple. I think you’ll find that a child is willing to participate when you genuinely focus more on the moment as shared time together. Be heartened. Kids are natural storytellers, so tap into that in open and gentle and fun ways.

Helping kids visualize the kinds of characters they aspire to become -- real super heroes like decent human beings who are in it to make the world a better place to live -- depends on how we frame the stories we tell and how we include and portray our children in those narratives.

Your kid wants to be a superhero? Begin with inventive storytelling. After all, the kids will inherit the Earth. And they should be ready.

Bonnie J. Toomey teaches at Plymouth State University, writes about writing, learning, and life in the 21st century. You can follow Parent Forward on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bonniejtoomey . Learn more at www.parentforward.blogspot.com or visit bonniejtoomey.com .