Bed-time ritual

March 8, 2010

When my daughter was two or three years old, she asked for a story one night, and of course, being a devoted mother, I obliged. But the next night she asked for another story, and the next night, and the night after that…. Soon it started to feel like hard work to come up with a new story each night, so I developed a story-generating algorithm, which went something like this:

* Think of something that happened that day
* Start with “One day, a long, long time ago there was a …”
* Personalize the thing or animal you thought of into a character she could sympathize with
* Create a problem for the character and explore the consequences
* Find a way to solve the problem
* End with a description of how the thing or animal lived after the problem was solved.

This made it much easier to construct an impromptu story. One evening I even ended up with a pink flannel sheep social network. It started with the pink sheep on her green flannel pyjama suit. Of course the sheep was lonely; he had no other sheep within reach to talk to. Until one day (a key phrase when constructing the story), when he realized that where the pyjama top covers the pants, he could get close enough to another sheep on the pant half, and they had a lovely gossip. Then they both found other sheep they could reach across a fold of the fabric, or where the sleeve rests on the pants, and soon all the pink sheep were sharing news by passing messages up and down the pyjama suit, telephone-style.

She often fell asleep before the end of the story, especially on nights when I was at my most creative. The story-telling was a sort of “all is well with the world” ritual that eased the transition from the busy day into peaceful sleep time.

Then she became a teen-ager, and suddenly my stories were too childish. So I threw out the story generator and started anew, thinking up more complex, darker stories that did not always have happing endings. After a few nights, we mutually decided that this did not work – it did not have the same comforting, ritual effect, for one, and it was hard work to think up original stories. For a few weeks, we stopped the stories altogether, but that also was not satisfactory: bed-time wasn’t as much fun anymore. So eventually I went back to the old recipe, choosing more grown-up characters and giving them more typical teen-age problems. This strategy lasted until she went to boarding school at the beginning of the year. When she was scared and alone that first night, I sent her a text message starting with “One day, long long ago, there was a laundry basket, which went to boarding school for the first time”, inviting her to complete the rest of the story. And that was the end of the story-telling ritual – I miss it often!

I wonder though, while the story generating algorithm started life as an effort-saving device for mom, it does represent an archetypal story plot. Will she somewhere in her subconscious, when she grows up, have a programme that says “every day brings a new problem, but never fear, every problem has a solution”?

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