As many of you have read, I grew up on a farm. Maybe it’s the power of nostalgia, but I’ve described my childhood as pretty idyllic and I believe that it was. I actually felt guilty that I raised four children in a big city like Los Angeles where they didn’t have the freedom to be outside playing all day, swimming in the creek, riding ponies, or catching fireflies.
As wonderful as I felt my childhood was, though, life on a farm is dangerous. Farming has the third highest accident rating of all professions — surpassed only by mining and construction. On our street alone, a neighbor boy lost his arm in a posthole augur (digger) and the farmer on the other side of us, a woman, lost two fingers in the grain elevator. My best friend in the first grade fell off her pony (before we used to wear helmets) and died instantly when her head hit a rock. Her father promptly took his shotgun out to the barn and shot the pony — a tragedy all the way around.
Childhood can be dangerous everywhere, and as a parent, it felt like I was always scrambling to protect my children and make sure they were safe, without keeping them cooped up and under foot all day. To be sure, living in a big city had its own form of lurking dangers. I worried about any crazy, creeper that I never had to deal with living in the country. Every few months I would check the Sex Offender Registry. I gave them all whistles to wear around their necks with the instructions to blow the whistle if anyone bothered them. I gave them tips about only walking down the side of the street that goes against traffic, because anyone trying to steal them would have to do a U-Turn which would make it much more difficult. I told them to fight and scream because abductors are less likely to take a child if they are making a big fuss. They want it to be easy. They will just move to the next kid. Yes, I researched all of this. Speaking of stealing kids, my worst nightmare was just that. One time my toddler son got lost at the mall (he was playing the newly discovered game of hide ‘n seek). I was in a complete panic and when we finally found him, well, let’s just say that he was pretty much scarred from ever playing hide ‘n seek again.
Tip: don’t ever read, The Silence of the Lambs.
It’s probably to their benefit that my children weren’t as concerned about these issues as I was. Nevertheless, I had a job to do! I was protector in chief!! After the umpteenth time yelling at them to quit doing this or stop doing that, I happened upon an idea. I would tell them a story as to why they shouldn’t run at the swimming pool. I created a character that had encountered every imaginable accident while not taking the precautionary measures that I wanted my kids to take. I used the name of an old friend of mine, and Nancy Gump, the unluckiest girl in the world, was born.
“Don’t run around the swimming pool. I had a friend, Nancy Gump, who did that and she fell and hit her head and went deaf in one ear.”
“Don’t run with a stick in your mouth! I had a friend, Nancy Gump, who did that and the stick poked right through the top of her mouth and then she could only eat vegetable soup for the rest of her life.” (Do you like the vegetable soup touch? Yes, sadly, most kids don’t like vegetable soup.)
“Be careful with that saw! My friend, Nancy Gump, sawed clear through her leg doing that.”
“Don’t sleep with a rubber band around your finger. Nancy Gump did that and her finger turned black and fell off.”
You get the point.
Even though it was gross, it worked really well. I’m proud to announce that all my children have all their limbs, senses and digits. And the best part is, I didn’t have to be the nagging mom all the time. One Nancy Gump story and the rule was established. But the real power behind my method was the stories. Stories are immensely effective with everything from public speaking, to sales, to convincing children to listen to you.
In, How to Use Stories to Win Over Others, Jennifer Aaker, Professor of Marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, says there are four characteristics of an effective story:
1. Goal — Why are you telling the story? To protect my children.
2. Grab Attention — Why would the audience what to listen? Cutting off your leg is definitely an attention grabber.
3. Engage — Why would the audience care? Because they love their leg.
4. Enable Action — Why would the audience want to share the story? So all their siblings and friends can save their leg too.
Aaker states that we should all have a signature story. She goes further by saying that we need a portfolio of stories for different goals and different audiences. Here’s the really cool thing. If you’re trying to convince someone to do something, sharing a story with them is forty times more effective than giving them data or statistics. And combining the two is even more effective.
According to Horst Kornberger in his book, The Power of Stories: Nurturing Children’s Imagination and Consciousness, he states, “From the great myths and legends to enchanting fairy tales, parables, fables and folktales, stories can have a great healing and educative power. They come from our subconscious and imagination, deep inside us. They have much to teach us about ourselves, therefore, and the world we create around us.”
When my daughter was in Preschool, she sat down one morning and wrote the story (phonetically), “The Bare and the Hare.” It was about a little girl going into the forest and finding a “Bare,” who she was terrified of and after being helped by the Hare, she realized that it was only her little sister. (Her dad and his new wife were having a baby girl.)
A couple years into the Nancy Gump stories, I reconnected with her and set up a visit for the next time we went back to the family farm. When we knocked on her door, my kids were petrified, imagining a woman without arms and legs, eyes and ears. Out came Nancy Gump, intact and giving out kisses and hugs and presents, and my kids were dumbfounded. They knowingly looked at me. I smiled. The jig was up. But they were already past the age of reckless behavior. I had protected them. Mission accomplished.