Stories That Teach
My husband and I like to tell our kids stories about times when things didn’t work out quite as well as we had hoped—in a funny way. Looking back, we realize that we could have made a better choice. But because the consequences were pretty minor, or even silly, these tales are entertaining rather than painful. They might just teach something along the way.
A favorite one we harken back to happened early in our relationship, when my husband picked out a “romantic” bed and breakfast inn from a small ad on the still-young Internet, located a stone’s throw away from a national park we wanted to visit. We were excited as we drove up late at night to a large house, finally arriving after facing a ton of traffic and a longer-than-expected drive.
We were soon confronted, however, with the reality that the place was far from romantic. We were ushered inside to a heavily decorated room in the basement of an older couple’s home, complete with a “Big Mouth Billy Bass” singing fish affixed to the wall, and a noisy laundry station right outside the room’s door. Clearly the wife’s “fun” retirement project, the bedroom was filled with mismatched chintz.
The mistress of the house, irked at having to wait up late for us, had just one burning question: Would we like eggs and sausage or waffles and fruit for breakfast in the morning?
The next day we were greeted by her in the kitchen while her husband, in a gray undershirt and little else, sat nearby watching TV, his bare feet and unclipped toenails propped up on an ottoman in full view as we tried to eat…. clearly intent on ignoring the intruders in his house.
We headed into the park and took a hike that inadvertently lasted well into the dark as we rushed to find our way back without flashlights. Our stay was topped off by my husband’s scary hypothermia that evening.
These kinds of tales are called “Epic Fail" stories by our daughters, who often try to run from the room instead of hearing them. They find them cringe-worthy. But the “fail” is actually the point. It’s a way of examining what we’ve done well and not so well, figuring out how we could do better, and teaching them some things to avoid too. My husband especially enjoys sharing these, and to me, they’re pretty funny, even on repetition. (I try to restrain myself from giving away the ending!)
The story above, for example, contains a lot of valuable lessons. Don’t buy a singing bass fish and hang it up to decorate your new basement B&B. Another: Don’t book a room—or, much more importantly, don’t go to a school or accept a job or travel to a faraway destination—on the basis of a small, cute ad you find quickly online. Do your research!
It’s a valuable takeaway: You need to do due diligence in life. And if you do, and you still find you're stuck in a basement listening to a fish singing "Don't Worry, Be Happy," do your best to laugh at it.
Also: Don’t plan an 8+ mile summer hike in the mid-afternoon without quick-dry clothing or flashlights. (We have since become big fans of synthetic athletic shirts, and of starting early.)
Time and experience have taught us many life lessons, and we try to share those with our children. Stories are an ideal way to do that, since they are memorable and relatable. With the distance of a few years, what was really frustrating at the time now seems funny.
And the act of framing what happened to us, and our role in shaping it, is best done at a distance—looking back from a safe perch to see the full context. It's a good way to sneak in a little teaching with kids of any age... and even to remind ourselves of what to do differently next time.
Socrates is famously quoted as saying, “the greatest good is daily to converse about virtue,” and “the unexamined life is not worth living” (Plato’s Apology). We humans do need to talk, to share our stories, to probe all our experiences and our thoughts—to understand the choices we have made and the personal tendencies and real-life situations that pull us away from virtue. We do need to examine who we are, and what we do, on a regular basis, in order to improve our understanding and our choices. (For an interesting take on these quotes, see this Vermont Philosophy blog post.)
And, within reason, it is beneficial to share this practice with our children. Children, especially as they get older, need to learn how to fail, and how to get back up again after a reversal. Also, since our culture often misinforms them about what they should value and how they should behave in a tough situation, hearing a parent or trusted adult rationally review a mistake or even a difficult misfortune can teach them something, too.
It's helpful to review our actions for ourselves, either in writing or in our personal thoughts. Ancient Stoics looked back to Pythagoras’ Golden Verses, where he advocated reviewing our own behavior daily:
“Never allow sleep to close your eyelids, after you went to bed,
Until you have examined all your actions of the day by your reason.
In what have I done wrong? What have I done? What have I omitted that I ought to have done?
If in this examination you find that you have done wrong, reprove yourself severely for it;
And if you have done any good, rejoice.”
It’s a practice I do in a sideways way, sifting through what’s on my mind through writing about my thoughts and challenges, especially by blogging. I also like jotting down a few lines of verse here and there in the evening, sometimes transforming a painful experience into a lyrical moment.
This all reminds me of a favorite possession in my family. When I went to Universal Studios’ Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park several years ago, I got a baseball cap as a souvenir. The hat said “Seeker”—Harry’s position in the game of Quidditch. But for me, it held a deeper meaning. I’m constantly seeking to understand where we derive our value and moral worth, how we can examine and refine our intentions, and the way we live our lives. How we can be in harmony with our world, but also strive to bring good to our relationships and our communities. How to see things clearly in a world where emotional appeals (backed by cash) are used to constantly sell us products or even political candidates.
How to cut through the noise? By seeking the truth and pursuing the virtues in our daily engagements, and by recalling our “fails” and our successes through stories. Life is messy, and that's why this process will take all of our days. But that is what being human is all about.
I’ve since given the hat to my younger daughter, passing on this bit of wisdom.
Many parents complain that their children suffer from “selective hearing.” Their kids only hear what they want to hear.
This happens to me regularly. Me: “Why didn’t you do the dishes after school, like I reminded you this morning?” Kid: “I didn’t hear you.” Or me: “I see your shoes are still on the kitchen floor—didn’t you remember Dad asking you to put them away twice?” Kid: “No, I never heard that!”
Or me: “You should bring a water bottle for your activity today.” Then, me, getting a text an hour after my daughter arrived at her far-away, full-day event: “Mom, I need a water bottle. I didn’t know I was supposed to bring one. Can you drop it off?” And then me, 45 minutes later, carrying water bottle…
This issue has nothing to do with the physical auditory sense but everything to do with what we choose to focus on, and what we do or don’t want to acknowledge. It’s actually more of a “doing” problem than a hearing one. Usually it’s a function of the conflict between what we (the parents) want them to do, and what they (as individuals, and as children) want to do.
It can be tough as a parent. There is no great solution that I know of to consistently get kids’ attention. Perhaps the best we can do is to let nature take its course, so that our children experience some kind of natural consequence for not heeding our guidance (for example, getting so thirsty that they might even seek out a distant water fountain during breaks, prompting them to remember the need for a water bottle next time). If you have other ideas, please let me know in the comments!
But what I really wanted to point out is that I’m also coming to realize that there’s a related phenomenon: “Selective seeing.” It’s what we choose to notice in our surroundings, and what we don’t; it’s what seems visible to us, and what we miss... even if it is obvious to others.
For instance, imagine your child has an array of clothing, homework, markers, and pencils on her bedroom floor. Have you had the experience of reminding that child about to clean up, only to find that she does not seem to “see” that the floor has stuff on it, and she tends to focus only on her dresser or some other spot? Some of us tune out what we’ve gotten used to seeing.
I suffer from this, too. When it comes to my own clutter, I have trouble seeing it. Some days it pops right out at me, in a rather discouraging way. But a lot of times, it takes a huge effort to notice the excess stuff is there. My leaning Tower of Pisa-style stack of books by my bed; my cache of markers and pens littering my desk; junk mail piled on the coffee table; a stack of clean clothes, folded, rising high above the rim of a laundry basket; toiletries spread out across the sink counter; I could go on.
It is the same with so many things, and some are a lot more serious. Our brains get used to walking past someone sleeping at the train station. Or encountering worn-out tents lined up by the underpass. Or news reports showing hungry people in refugee camps. We get used to it, without really seeing it. To some degree, it is a defensive mechanism: If we saw everything all the time, our brains would become overwhelmed.
But still, I now recognize I need to turn on my power of sight and awareness more often.
Here's a Stoic-inspired question to ask ourselves: "What is it we're not seeing?" Put another way "What truths or situations are we not acknowledging?"
At home, it’s about stuff. I’m working on becoming more selective about what I buy after suffering a rash of purchase-return cycles. In fact, “depriving” ourselves of stuff is a Stoic tradition, to help us understand we don't need more.
That’s easier said than done in our market-driven economy, where we are surrounded by ads, offers, and sales on stuff. But the stuff doesn’t make us happy, especially since the psychological phenomenon of hedonic adaption holds very true: We soon get used to having a nice thing, and it doesn’t really have an impact on our contented feelings anymore. Perhaps the thrill of the chase for stuff could be replaced by something else, maybe by challenging ourselves to do something creative, something athletic, or something sociable with real, live people (not just social media).
And in the wider world, outside my home and sphere, in terms of all the inequities and suffering of others: This year, I’m working on seeing and understanding more. I’ve started by listening to a very interesting audiobook by the woman who “wrote the book” on modern genocide: Samantha Power, former US Ambassador to the UN. She has an uncanny ability to see what others miss in terms of human suffering across the globe, and to elevate others’ safety and well-being.
Seeing can help us understand the urgent need to focus on a situation and do something. The ancient Stoics emphasized our common humanity: Other people, no matter how far or different, are our siblings. I know I don’t have all the answers for helping others, or even much knowledge of what should be done, and I can only do what’s within my power. But I hope I can continue to make myself see and acknowledge even what’s terrible, such as the human rights abuses Power has reported on and fought against.
And I’d like my kids to do the same: See bigger picture things, in addition to small ones. It’s a key reason why I support project-based learning. When my children recognize a real-world problem that they want to understand better, to encounter through actual people and places (even remotely), they learn more.
In terms of my life philosophy, this approach stems from the Stoic effort to pierce through our unexamined impressions—the BS—on the outside, and to come to grips with the reality underneath. Ancient Stoics often admonished their followers to examine things more closely. Epictetus reminds those who follow philosophy to see beyond the superficial and to understand the true nature of our world. This isn’t always popular or pleasant, since most people avoid seeing what’s true, uncomfortable, or inconvenient—me among them.
But I’m working on it.
About The Stoic Mom
I'm a writer, editor, and mom to two daughters in Northern California on a journey to discover how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent's - or any person's - life.