How to to tell stories that teach


Here’s how you can use storytelling to engage your kid’s interest and teach him important life lessons. (Without the eye rolls.)

Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. To have a friend, be a friend. There’s no use crying over spilled milk. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

Platitudes like those might look good on schoolroom posters and Pinterest boards, but they’re all but worthless in real-life situations. “They are just too vague,” says dad and professional storyteller Paul Smith.

It’s far better to teach through stories, as Smith describes in his book Parenting With a Story. Another professional storyteller and dad, K. Sean Buvala, advocates a similar approach with his DaddyTeller book and website, “Stories,” he writes, “teach values in a nonthreatening way and without a heavy-handed lecture.”

For his book, Smith asked hundreds of people around the world to describe the defining moments in their lives, which he turned into 101 lessons on humility, creativity, kindness and other values. Buvala, on the other hand, steers parents to timeless fables like those attributed to the Greek writer Aesop.

Storytime Secrets
Watch Buvala in front of an audience of children, and you’ll understand why he’s an award-winning storyteller. He captivates kids with hand gestures, silly voices and the occasional song. Fortunately, parents don’t need those tools of his trade. “This isn’t about you being me or any storyteller you’ve ever seen,” he says. “It’s about you being you.”

It’s also about timing. For maximum impact, share an appropriate story when your child is struggling. The main problem: He might not be open to hearing a “happily ever after” fairytale at a moment of crisis. To get around that problem, Buvala recommends skipping the setup. “Don’t say, ‘Let me tell you what it was like when I was 16,’ ” he explains. “Just say, ‘When I was 16, there was this kid I wanted to punch in the face every day.’ ”

Pause and Process
Of course, if you tell your son about the kid you wanted to punch in the face, he might end up in the principal’s office tomorrow. That’s why Smith recommends following up every story with a discussion. (Story-specific questions appear on his book’s website,

What if your child draws the “wrong” conclusion? “You may just leave it at that because you and your kid disagree,” he says. “If it’s really, really important that they do what you want them to do … you can always resort to bossing them around, because you’re still the parent.”

Repeat as Necessary
Buvala says the best stories have “singular phrases” that can bring them back to mind. For example, he tells a long story with the refrain “This too shall pass.” Just saying those four words to the young people in his life helps them recall that story and apply its lesson to their current situations.

The same thing happens with Smith’s kids. “I catch myself often referring to these stories,” he says. “Because they’ve already heard them, I don’t have to tell the whole story.”

And they don’t have to learn the lesson he’s trying to teach the hard way.

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