My five year old wrote a book. Her preschool class was tasked with creating a character, developing a story around the character, and illustrating the story before slapping a title on it and binding it into a precious keepsake. I hope it will be one that survives in the annals of schoolwork as evidence to our future selves and grown-up children: We were proud! We cared! We cherished (almost) every single work of art your little hands created!
For the record, five-year-olds tell stories like I do: stories that tend to be relentlessly boring, long in all the unimportant details and helplessly short in crucial points and a general arc that would keep the listener engaged, much less awake. Just ask my husband. And now here I am doubling-down, trying to tell you about a story my five year old authored. I beg you to stay with me.
Millie’s story goes like this: once upon a time there was a princess who was being hunted by a “mean and clever” goblin. The princess is aware of the danger from the first page, (she “knew about the goblin”), yet she makes the brave and risky decision to confront him. She immediately sets off into the forest and heads directly to the goblin’s cave, where she “knocked on the door.” She repeatedly tries and fails to trick and trap the goblin. The princess doesn’t give up though, and relief comes when the princess lured the goblin into a dungeon, “trapped him and shut the door. And that worked! She was so happy!” Her joy was premature and short-lived, however, when “the goblin broke free” again, threatening to overcome the princess.
The goblin finally meets his demise when Millie writes her way to a happy ending: the goblin “went to the human hospital, and he got a thousand shots that were not healthy.” The Princess is then free to return to the castle in peace. The End.
As a child psychologist, I tend to pay attention to the stories of children with the annoying overly-interpretive ear of your high school English teacher. Surely, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But Millie’s story set off bells in every part of my brain: the psychologist part, the self-involved, cancer-preoccupied part, the mom part, and the I’m-interested-because-I’m-paying-attention part. By the time the goblin is administered a thousand unhealthy shots at the human hospital, I am riveted.
My breast cancer battle currently looks like this: a thousand unhealthy shots at the human hospital. I am the Princess; my cancer, the goblin. As anyone who has ever known anyone with cancer is well aware, it is a family affliction. A mom doesn’t just have cancer: her family has it too. How much has Millie watched, powerless, over these past few months? How helpless or scared or worried has she felt as she watches her mother struggle to get out of bed, unable to lift her baby brother or snuggle her close, bald and fumbling around the house trying to remember simple things like whether it’s a bring-your-lunch-to-school day or where she put those darn car keys?
If I’m right and the story is about my cancer, it seems that my little girl is preoccupied with the trauma she’s enduring. Millie’s school friends are busy writing about imaginary adventures of animals and she’s writing about the mean and clever predator out to get her mother. You may think her story is a sad reflection of a reality she shouldn’t have to endure, but I disagree. I love Millie’s story and am so pleased with what I believe it reveals: healthy coping and resilience in the midst of a crisis.
Millie’s amazing storytelling talent is not unique to her. All children have a natural tendency toward problem resolution and mental health. They are natural storytellers, and they use stories to metabolize the events of their lives. Children are constantly telling stories, not just in words and written language, but also in art and pretend play, all the while creating cohesion and fostering their understanding of the world around them. Allowing children the freedom to tell their stories gives them a sense of self-competence and confidence as they face challenges. By becoming authors of their own experience, children can regain a sense of control that can be hard to come by in a world that makes them feel inferior or unrecognized. (I have explored this idea further here.) There’s a reason children are drawn to pretend-play fantasy characters like superheroes and fairies: these characters resonate with their desire to feel powerful, to accomplish things beyond their limitations (developmental or mortal).
Millie’s Princess is a BOSS. She knows she’s being hunted, but she doesn’t cower and wait or hide. She marches right up to the very dwelling of that scary goblin and knocks on his door. That is the confrontation of a warrior, confident and unflinching. Millie’s Princess continues to impress with her indefatigable efforts. She tries and fails, tries and thinks she has succeeded and allows herself to feel “so happy,” but her celebration is too soon; the goblin abides. She keeps going. And she doesn’t stop until she can return to her castle in peace.
I love this story not because I think Millie thinks her mom is a boss, but because in the telling of the story, Millie has found a way to make herself the boss. She wrote the story. She imagined a whole narrative and grappled with an imaginary problem through an imaginary character who demonstrated persistence and grit. Millie faced down her fears through the safety of a hypothetical scenario. As the storyteller, she exercised her power to decide the ending, and she chose a happy one. Millie has no choice about the realities of her life’s story, but she does have the power to construct her own story around it and decide how she’s going to play her part.
We worry so much over our kids. We want so desperately to protect them from the harsh realities of life. But sometimes, if we can stifle our urge to help long enough to be quiet and make space for our children to tell their stories, we might be surprised what their imaginations are creating. They are often telling stories of righteousness, justice, triumph and resilience. In the years I’ve spent listening to children’s stories, my own and others’, I have come to believe that imagination doesn’t just provide token solace when one is powerless. Imagined power IS real power.
I may not have control over the unpleasant realities of my cancer treatment, but I can take a page from Millie’s book and construct my own story around what I am enduring. I can be a warrior who marches straight up to my goblin. I shall look him in his mean and clever face, and persistently beat him back until I can return home in peace.
Dr. Emily McClatchey is a child psychologist and mother of three young children. She is the founder and creator of Kidolences,® specially-formulated care boxes to help kids manage loss and change. Send your love to a child at www.kidolences.com.