Sunday, December 15, 2013

Story Is the Only Language

Posted by: A. J. Larrieu

My son is two.

Yeah, you know where this post is going.

Trying to communicate with a two-year-old is like trying to thread a needle from across the room using a pair of extra-long chopsticks. While wearing mittens. (“It’s okay to be angry, but we don’t throw blocks when we’re angry, we say ‘I’m angry’ and we use calm voice and we don’t shriek because that hurts Mama’s ears…”)

I get it. He’s learning what it means to be frustrated and sad, and that’s important -- a big part of being human is learning that life doesn’t always give you cake when you want it. Unfortunately, he doesn’t always have the vocabulary to tell me how he feels, and when he can’t find the words, he does things like chuck blocks across the room and shriek.

We printed out one of those feeling wheels with the angry face and the happy face and the sad face. It did a pretty good job of teaching him the words, but it didn’t do much about the block-chucking/shrieking/flailing. Then, a few weeks ago, we read Alexander and the Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day for the first time.

Y’all remember this book, right?  Basically, nothing good happens. It consists of more misfortune, disappointment, spilled ink and mud than any child should have to endure in a week, much less a single day. It ends with Alexander eating lima beans and wearing uncomfortable pajamas while his cat runs off to hang out with one of his brothers. It would make the worst romance novel ever, but for a frustrated two-year-old, it is perfection.

Alexander shows its title character crying and screaming in pretty much every situation a typical toddler gets into: breakfast, the bath, the store. Now, when my Small One doesn’t want to take a bath, he still can’t articulate that he’s upset, but he can say, “Alexander crying in the bath!”

On the surface this seems simple. He likes the story, and he’s repeating the phrases and scenes he remembers. But the crazy thing is, once he delivers this statement, he gets on with it. He gets in the bath and lets me wash his hair. It’s like a miracle.

According to The Emotional Life of the Toddler, which I have been reading in a desperate attempt to figure out what goes on in the Small One’s busy brain, articulating their emotions is one of the toughest challenges toddlers face. I’ve told the Small One what angry means and pointed at the (now very wrinkled) feeling wheel a thousand times, but it was only barely making an impact. Four readings of Alexander, and he got it.

The words mean nothing. The angry faces on the feeling wheel mean only a little bit more. But the story—that means everything.

It’s not news that we’re hard-wired for stories. I’ve always thought they’re our most potent and articulate language. Now, I’m starting to think they’re our only language. My son’s interaction with Alexander has made me appreciate all over again how important it is to have stories of all types in the world, because if we’re going to talk to each other, we ought not to limit what we have the words to say.


  1. I love that, AJ - what a very powerful example! ~feels all excited about working on book this morning~

    1. Yes, be excited! You are doing important work. :)

  2. Ah, yes, toddlers and emotions. I remember asking my son once why he was upset. His answer: "The microwave made me angry."

  3. This is why I think mythology is so interesting - how we make sense of the world and how we share that with other people. Love this post!

    1. Thank you! And I totally agree. Telling stories is how we communicate, but creating them is how we understand ourselves. It's fascinating!


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