When I was a kid, I used to get scared a lot. Once, my father tried to make me feel less scared by telling me a little story – but it backfired.
He told me, “Mikie, once I woke up in the middle of the night and I thought I saw a man standing by the bathroom door. I was scared for a minute, but then I realized it was only my clothes piled a certain way on a chair and I wasn’t scared anymore. So you don’t need to be scared of things in the night either.”
The trouble was, I then had a new fear: waking up and thinking I saw a strange man in the room. I’d never thought of that before. I couldn’t take in the fact that Daddy had been trying to reassure me. All I could think of were those few seconds of terror when I’d think I saw a strange man in the room.
It’s amazing the way our minds work when we’re kids.
A while ago, I made up a new story for kids at the day care centers where I’m the weekly storyteller. I didn’t think it was scary at all. Willy the Wolf doesn’t want to grow up and go to kindergarten, so he goes to Babyland, the place where you turn into a baby and never grow up. (And in the end, of course, he realizes he does want to grow up, and gets out after many adventures).
The first time I told it, I made it a mystery where Willy was going. There was a mysterious canyon and nobody knew what was down there, just that if you went down, you’d never get out and you’d never grow up. I expected the kids to enjoy the mystery of what was down there, to be intrigued by the clues I planted (such as: the ground is covered with mattresses, there are pink and blue plastic rattling things growing from the trees, etc.).
But they were terrified of the unknown horror down there. When Willy made the choice to go there, they were practically screaming at him not to. Even when they found out it was just babies, some were still scared.
Now I love telling scary stories, although for little kids I make it not too scary and give it a funny ending. But I hadn’t intended that story to be scary at all.
Twice I told the story this way and was surprise by the depth of the fear the kids felt. So for the next group that I told it to, I changed it in a way that empowered the kids.
Instead of making a mystery out of what was in the canyon, I announced that I was going to tell the story of Babyland. The kids laughed.
In my revised version, Willy knows it’s Babyland he wants to go to, the only mystery is where it is. When I got to the part where Willy found the mysterious canyon and saw the mattresses on the ground and the rattles on the trees, the kids started saying, “I’ll bet that’s Babyland!” They even guessed the reason Willy sees no babies at 2:00 PM: they’re all taking their naps.
Same story, same action. But I let them in on the secret. I gave them more power. It made all the difference.