How Stories Educate

Imagine for a moment that you are attending your first week of school and your teacher tells you, "One plus one equals two," while writing some strange symbols on a board. Now imagine a different teacher who says, "Jill got home from her first week at school. She was feeling tired and hungry, but no sooner had she stepped in the door than she could smell the cakes Mom had been freshly baking. Before she had a chance to ask, her mother said, 'Would you like a cake?' Excitedly, Jill munched her way into the still slightly warm cake. When she finished she was still hungry, so she asked, 'Can I have another, please?' 'What?' replied her mother. 'You have eaten one cake. If you have another that will mean you have eaten two cakes.' One cake plus another cake equals two cakes. And that is exactly what Jill ate."

Which lesson has most meaning for you? Which involves you—and your senses, experiences— more in the learning process? With which do you have greater association, or find your attention more absorbed?

Learning skills in therapy follows similar processes as learning facts in school. Let's say you have a young enuretic client and you choose to take a behavioral approach to managing the case. You can instruct the child and his parents in strategies such as "Do not drink for a certain period before going to bed, empty your bladder before going to bed, retain your urine as long as possible during the day," and so on. You could recommend an enuresis alarm with prescribed instructions for its use. You could give your suggestions very clearly and directly.

Compare this to telling the child a story: "Andy was a boy I saw not very long ago. He felt embarrassed to talk about his problem and I guessed he felt a little different or odd. He didn't know anyone else who wet the bed—or not any who had told him so, anyway. It felt uncomfortable to wake up in a cold, wet bed every morning. He hated having plastic liners on his bed when his sister didn't. At times she teased him. He couldn't sleep over at his friends' houses when other kids did and he feared they would tease him, too, if they knew. His parents had told him it was time he grew out of it. They said they would put sticky stars on the calendar in his bedroom for each night he was dry, but he never got any. They offered him extra pocket money for dry nights but still it didn't work. He felt bad, like it was his fault. He wanted to please them but nothing seemed to work and he didn't know what else he could do."

Having thus set the problem and, hopefully, gained the listener's involvement, you can start to describe the choices that Andy had available (i.e., the behavioral steps that you could have given in a more direct but perhaps less readily accepted form). Maybe describe the choices Andy made, offer suggestions, perhaps with some humor ("Would it have helped for him to stand on his head all night?") or ask the listener for suggestions ("If standing on his head wouldn't work, what else could he have done?"). An example of how this can be done is provided in Story 26, "Learning New Tricks."

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