Avoid Negative Outcome Stories

While it might seem obvious to say that we need to create positive-outcome stories rather than negative-outcome stories, there are traditional tales—along with many others—in our culture that end in the negative. They are, if you like, paradoxical in that they are designed to teach the listener to do something by telling him or her what not to do. If that description sounds a little confusing, imagine yourself in the place of a child being told a story that tells you what not to do but doesn't give you the means to do it, a story that tells you what to avoid but does not teach you how to obtain its reciprocal.

A classic example is the story of the Little Red Hen, who found a grain of wheat and, at each stage of planting, reaping, threshing, milling, and baking, asks the other barnyard animals for help. All the way along, she seems to have an unrealistic expectation that they should help her exactly when and how she wants. The story is full of negativity, with the other creatures answering, "No, not I" whenever the little red hen requests assistance. In the end, when they smell the bread baking, she ends up being equally selfish by denying them a meal. The moral to the story is that if you do not help, you do not get to reap the benefits.

Nowhere throughout the tale is the listener guided in what behaviors are appropriate. It is just assumed that somehow the young listener will know and adopt these. As with magic-outcome stories, the tale of the Little Red Hen fails to teach the listeners what they could do to reach a positive outcome. This might be implied, but it is not explicit.

Other stories, such as "The Four Faithful Friends" (Story 34), are based on a similar theme— the value of working together cooperatively—but provide the steps and processes that will result in the characters' reaping a positive result in the end.

Because negative-outcome stories can foster guilt rather than action, your metaphors are more likely to be helpful if they move toward the desired rather than the undesired outcome, and provide the steps by which a young listener can attain the appropriate end. With these, as with magic-outcome stories, the tale needs to provide processes that are accessible to the listener.

As an astute reader, you may find yourself thinking, But you have included negative-outcome stories yourself, George—and, of course, you are right. It is something I have done deliberately to illustrate just this point. Story 47 has the message "Don't fly off the handle ifyou are full of trash," but does not teach the skills for managing anger. In "Seeking Happiness" (Story 10), the core message is that materialism does not necessarily provide happiness. I have built into this story other indirectly, almost paradoxically, offered suggestions that may enhance happiness. These were not in the tale as I have previously told it (Burns & Street, 2003). Story 16, "The Importance of Accepting Compliments," winds up with a challenging, confronting, and humorous question: "What, don't you know how to accept a compliment?" It points out the potentially dramatic consequences of not accepting compliments while not showing listeners how they can.

Stories telling a child what not to do can at times be useful if you wish to (a) bring home a strong point, (b) include some shock or surprise elements to the story, or (c) communicate a therapeutic message with humor. Once that therapeutic message about what not to do has been expressed, then additional metaphors that provide constructive strategies for attaining the outcome can be presented. For example, if you tell a story such as "Flying off the Handle" (Story 47), you may want to follow it with a story like "Nailing Down Anger" (Story 45), or others that provide means to manage anger.

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