It would happen somewhere between brushing my son’s teeth and tucking him into bed. Liam would sit in my lap on the lone comfy chair in his room, and together we would read two or three stories he’d chosen from our overfilled bookshelf.
“Story” might be a generous word when it comes to the stiff board books of his very early childhood. These utilitarian narratives usually consisted of single words or numbers on a page, with a splash of vibrant colors or pictures. Despite having the opposite effect on me, they grabbed and kept his attention.
But the books evolved as he did, until eventually we were telling our own stories in between the ones written on pages. At first it began as a way to recap the day, or to remember significant moments. One of our favorite stories was about an outing to a lake near our neighborhood. I had brought bread to feed the fish, along with snacks for the two of us in case we got hungry. Liam’s first stop was a small walkway over the lake, where in his excitement, he created a feeding frenzy among the fish below us. When I broke the news that we had depleted our bread supply, Liam slumped, turned around, and started walking away, forlorn and disappointed. As we resumed walking together, I offered him an orange for a snack. His eyes lit up, and he snatched it out of my hands and took off back to the location where we were feeding the fish. Without a moment’s hesitation, he tossed the orange into the lake. Splashing into the water below, it disappeared for a moment, and then emerged, bobbing on the surface of the water. That was the day Liam learned fish don’t like oranges.
For months I told stories like these. Not only was Liam able to reminisce and laugh at experiences from our past, but these narratives also provided the opportunity to place himself in the story and analyze choices he’d made. For me, it was special to watch him realize that he could, perhaps, become a main character.
Without a moment’s hesitation, he tossed the orange into the lake.
One evening after retelling our day, Liam glanced over at Owl and Raccoon—two of his favorite stuffed animals sitting on the bed. “What about them? What did they do today?” he said. And for the first time, I was creating narratives on the spot. The realization that we could make up our own stories exhilarated Liam. With rapt attention, he stared off into the distance, as if watching the narrative unfold before his eyes.
I knew that he too could contribute to the stories, and I was enthusiastic to hear what direction his imagination would take. Occasionally, as the plot took a dramatic turn, I would ask Liam what he thought would happen next. He’d look at me with frustration, as if I had stopped him from biting into his favorite dessert. “I don’t know,” he said hurriedly. “You tell me.” Apparently he thought the story was already determined—and that he couldn’t take part in shaping what it would become.
I decided to experiment during our next bedtime story. Liam was engrossed in the adventures of Woody and Buzz Lightyear scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef. As the two characterswere swimming with the colorful aquatic life, they spotted a large, menacing great white shark in the distance. Nearly jumping out of their scuba gear, both Buzz and Woody frantically rushed towards the surface, only to look back and notice that the shark had simply swum away.
Nearly jumping out of their scuba gear, both Buzz and Woody frantically rushed towards the surface, only to look back and notice that the shark had simply swum away.
Liam froze, then looked at me, confused. “Wait, what?”
“I know, imagine that,” I said, acting relieved. “How great did that work out for them?”
For our next story, Buzz and Woody were back at it, this time exploring the Amazon rainforests. In the height of their adventure, they stumbled upon a dangerous swath of quicksand. Thankfully, they noticed it just in time and were able to safely avoid it.
Liam looked up at me with incredulity. It was clear he was irritated, but I could tell he wasn’t upset with me—it was as if the plot itself offended him. I used his own desire for an engaging story against him. Any time we got to a big event or conflict, I would always choose the least interesting outcome.
Eventually, Liam could no longer sit idly by. “Daddy, could I try and tell it?” Nonchalantly, I acquiesced. “Well, if you really want to, that would be fine.”
Storytelling in tandem took the characters on wild adventures that were unexpected for both of us. It was exciting not only to witness Liam taking ownership over stories we told together, but also to watch him apply those skills to real life in the days that followed.
When he was faced with a decision, I’d ask, “Which will make a better story?”
To help him see narratives in his own life, we initiated a new phrase: When he was faced with a decision about, say, whether to disobey or how to spend free time, I’d ask, “Which will make a better story?” It’s gratifying to watch him learn to recognize that he’s part of a larger story—that his decisions matter and he has the autonomy to determine his actions.
But even more than that, he has been able to see that stories without any conflict or risk-taking are usually the less interesting ones. Characters—whether the ones we invent or the protagonists from those simple bedtime storybooks—experience very little growth when life is easy. To see Liam recognize what make stories engaging (even if he cannot explain it) is exciting. And then to watch him apply those ideas to his life, even when they sometimes seem daunting, reminds me of the power great stories can have in our lives.
I’m not so concerned with giving my children the answer to every problem. What really excites me is the ability to provide them the tools and wisdom to problem-solve when conflicts do occur. Stories have a way of correcting false beliefs we tend to apply to our struggles—for example, that adversity is a sign we’re doing something wrong, or that a normal life is conflict-free. Those times of tension and risk are moments that shape us into who we are. We are who we are, not despite our struggles, but because of them.
This doesn’t always mean that we need those conflicts—or that we’re necessarily better off because of them. But stories reframe how we think of friction in our lives and respond to it. Isn’t this how our heavenly Father works? He holds the answers but delights in our discovering them.
Liam is still a child. At 7 years old, he is impulsive and still very much the center of his own universe. But there are moments when I can catch a glimpse of him assessing a situation and making decisions based on more than what makes him happiest right then. Moments when he is able to see past the difficulty of a situation to the significance. He is starting, in his own small and imperfect way, to tell his own story.