How storytelling helps my daughter stand up for herself

By Lauren Kosa

At an indoor playground, a boy pushed my daughter from the collection of blocks he’d taken over in the center of the room. Sniffing her out as a younger child, he declared that only four-year-olds like him could play, leaving her with none. My normally vivacious three-year-old retreated.

I told the group the blocks were there for everyone. But still stinging, my daughter didn’t want to try again. She sat against the wall and sulked.

I wondered how to teach my daughter to respond the next time something like that happened. Rather than intervening, I wanted her to have her own tools. Mostly, I wanted her to learn the art of standing up for herself, kindly but firmly.

That night, perusing our bookshelf, I saw that none of our stories had young protagonists responding to aggression. In fact, to look at our books, you’d think aggression among kids simply didn’t exist. It was mostly stories of little boys and their mothers with comforting lessons, where everyone was well-behaved. So instead of reading her a bedtime story like usual, I decided to tell her one.

I write fiction and believe the best stories come from a few solid characters, a thorny situation, and lots of free space. I didn’t know at first where the story would go.

I made up a boy named Big Bad Billy. As I started the story Big Bad Billy told the protagonist, who was three years old just like my daughter, that she couldn’t play. I realized I was retelling the day’s events in a new way.

In this version, the heroine stood up to the boy, saying to him that the playground was open to all kids. The other children were amazed at her bravery, and, indulging my love for collective action, there was then a mini-revolution. The two- and three-year-olds rose up and swarmed the tower of blocks.

As I told the story, my daughter was transfixed. That possibility had never occurred to her. More, she was proud. I could see it in the way she smiled and thrust out her lip, the way she seemed bigger as I told it.

It didn’t just enthrall her. I was amazed at how the story had reproduced in her the exact emotions as the story’s protagonist. It was more powerful than a book, because she was the heroine, and the events were based on her own experiences.

When I was a kid, on long drives home from our grandmother’s house in Fort Worth, Texas, my dad used to tell my brother, sister, and me stories about sneaking onto trains with his best friend. Staring out the dark windows of our car at night, I was transported to a world of boxcars and old towns. I’d imagine stowaway kids and bandits at every step. Even years later, when I came to understand that none of these adventures actually happened, they still captured my imagination. It was my first real taste of adventure and the power of an oral tale.

Over the years I’ve spent as a writer focusing on the written word, I’d begun to lose touch with the simple act of telling stories. Unlike books, oral stories constantly evolve. I can adapt the stories based on whatever is happening to my daughter that particular day. And the interpretation is all her own. There are no pictures so her imagination has to work that much harder. And the endings often surprise both of us. I don’t know any book that can do that.

Every night since the first Billy story, my daughter only wants to hear about Big Bad Billy, and she delights in how the heroine of the story thwarts him.

Usually in the stories, my daughter responds to her tormentor through trickery or wisdom, before Billy has a revelation and changes. Many stories end with her saying, “You’re not so bad after all, Billy.” I like to think I’m teaching about forgiveness and understanding also.

Yes, of course we still need books. They provide us with diverse perspectives from people around the world. But it also strikes me that we humans have been telling oral stories for thousands of years. Storytelling is a primal act—how culture is transmitted. It will never stop being important.

Lately, my daughter has started acting out the Billy stories and telling the imaginary Billy exactly how she feels.

“No, Billy! You cannot push me!” she calls out to the imaginary boy. Her eyes narrow to a squint. Her brows furrow. She has never used this voice with a real girl or boy, at least as far as I have seen. But she is practicing indignation, listening to her voice. When the time comes, she will know how it’s supposed to feel. It occurs to me that we first learn to react, and to believe we can, by practicing in the safety of our imaginations. It strikes me that I too am practicing something: spontaneity and having faith in a story where I don’t know how things will turn out.

In my most recent Billy story, I adapted a version of Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, a book we own and love. But never before had my daughter seemed so transfixed, not even while looking at its beautiful illustrations. In this story, after convincing Billy to love nature, my daughter found a tiny caterpillar egg on a leaf, took it home, and put it in a jar. It hatched, and she began to feed it.

I found myself using fiction techniques from writing courses I’ve taken. I slowed the story’s pace right at the climax, drawing out every detail.

“As the chrysalis broke open, the little butterfly stretched out one wet, colorful wing, unfurling its colors to the sky,” I said.

My daughter lay on her back and closed her eyes with eyebrows arched in a look of pride. She spread her arms slowly, stretching out and over the bedside, as if she too were a beautiful butterfly, acting out her own metamorphosis.

“The butterfly, now transformed, flew and circled around her,” I said, “landed on her shoulder, and gave her a kiss.”

She opened her eyes, still a butterfly, and planted a light kiss on my cheek.

Transformations indeed.

Lauren Kosa writes fiction and essays and lives in the Washington, DC area with her husband, daughter, and a little boy on the way. She’s a former Texan who visits as often as she can.

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