Last year, in my space at the shelter, I hung several posters--a thin, sad little girl frowning at the photographer; the Lion King and his close, happy family; a bull moose standing in the forest, glaring at the viewer, and a mother polar bear cuddling her cubs.
The middle-grade kids (aged 6-10) who have known me a while sometimes come into group announcing they want to "do the story" that night. Others agree to tell a story reluctantly and often look at all the posters before they start. The poster most often chosen for their story is the polar bear. She's sitting on icy snow, her back rounded and her head bent over two young cubs. She has wrapped her arms around them in a very human way and they look content.
The storyteller (child) is instructed to tell a story that "isn't about yourself or anyone you know." I start them off with "Once upon a time, long, long ago..." and they tell an original tale (with occasional prompts from me) or re-tell a fairy tale or children's movie.
When they're finished, I ask if there's a "lesson" to their story. Sometimes there is, sometimes there isn't. When there is a lesson, it is often very appropriate and sounds as if the child's quoting an adult.
Then it's my turn. My story starts with their character in the same situation they've described and then it changes. My bunny doesn't live with the Three Bears forever. My "bad boy" doesn't jump off a cliff when he makes mistakes. My lion doesn't kill the woman. And my polar bear mom isn't perfect. She isn't stupid or bad or helpless, either. She tries to catch enough fish so her cubs don't go hungry. She takes them to a new ice floe when the old one starts to shrink or crack. She runs away from the hunter and makes sure her cubs stay close behind.
My "lesson" might be, "Mommy bears who are in trouble don't always know what to do. But they usually love their cubs and want to keep them safe. So the cubs need to stay near her and maybe someday life will be better." There's no magical ending, no tremendous hero or perfect solution. Just life--struggle, unpredictability, hard work, maybe some success. Improvement but not nervana.
There is often silence when my story is over. One child might smile, another stare at the wall, occasionally a couple kids might, to my embarrassment, applaud. I thank them for listening and then it's time to play or to switch to a different activity with another volunteer. Occasionally, a child may show a delayed reaction a while later--tears, aggression, or letting someone "in."
I love each and every response. They are legitimate reactions to seeing life differently, if only for an instant.
Never underestimate the power of stories. To small children, they are real and speak to them more deeply than lectures, reward, or punishment.
And better still, they may be carried around forever.