Bed time stories with clear concepts

by Gunnar_Zarncke 6y1st Sep 20139 comments


Followup of: Raising numerate children

As promised I will now give one more parenting technique for raising a child as a rationalist.

This is about a special kind of bed time stories that I tell. The idea is to use clear concepts and pack them into a form accessible to small children (ages four to ten). I decided on the structure beforehand but the plot was mostly made up on the spot (based on available experiences of the day).

Endless story

This is the most well known and elementary form of a nested story. You could call it tail recursion without termination.

In German there is a well known song that goes as follow:

"Ein Hund lief in die Küche und stahl dem Koch ein Ei.

Da nahm der Koch den Löffel und schlug den Hund entzwei.

Da kamen alle Hunde und gruben ihm ein Grab,

und setzten einen Grabstein, worauf geschrieben ward:" (repeat)

I couldn't find an English translations of this (does anybody volunteer?) But I found a comparable song in English:

"This is the song that never ends."

(which has the nice additional benefit of being self-referential)

Now there are multiple ways to use and vary this basic pattern:

  • Stop when you get bored. If done well this emphasizes certain aspects of infinity - that nothing new is added; everything stays exactly the same and would continue on 'ad inifinitum'.  
  • Introduce an explicit change breaking the loop with another explanation (e.g. "... und stahl dem Koch kein Ei" or "...because they like it").  
  • Vary (reduce) the number of participants each time until it gets to zero ("Viele Hunde", "Einige Hunde", "Ein Hund", "keine Hunde" or "a few people", "no people"). 
  • Increase speed of singing it each time until it becomes noise (or if you do it well roughly doubling each time you can even 'solve' the infinite regress via Zeno) that's what my wife does.
  • Talk about what is written on the stone and that the text has to be smaller each time (only suitable for cases where a picture can be imagined).

Strictly nested story

This developed from a story in which a boy reads a book. Neverbug mentioned the Neverending Story which is the 'classical' example. But you can find pictures of books with pictures of themselves a lot even in childrens picture books.

I adapted this pattern one evening when my son had refused to clean up his toys. It went like this:

"There was a boy called Anton who had cleaned up his room quickly and was in bed early. His mother came to say goodnight and complimented him and told him a long story of

"A boy called Bill who has played long and then cleaned up his room just in time for his mother to tell him a story of

"A boy called Charles who didn't like cleaning up and argued with his mother but in the end tidied up early enough for a short story of

"A boy called Dylan who had quite a heap in his room, raged when begged to clean up and thus had to put his pieces away together with his mother and just got a short hug and good night kiss."

Then the story of Dylen ended and the mother of Charles gave him a good night kiss."       

That was the end of the story of Charles and the mother of Bill gave him a hug and kiss and left."

And that was the end of the story of Bill and the mother of Anton gave him a hug and a kiss and left."

And that is the end of the story of Anton and I give you a kiss and will go. Good night. 

This can be varied in lots of ways:

  • nesting depth
  • topic - here the topic (cleaning up) is related on the meta level to the length of the story  
  • naming of the boy in the story (here I chose alphabetical)
  • alternating between boys/girls mother/father (thus showning multiple recursion)

The general pattern is simple nested recursion with exit condition.

Nested story with interrupt

This varies the simple nested story with a fun element that at the same time allows reflection of the meta level and external effects. For comparison I will use the same story as before (of course I don't want to avoid typing):

"There was a boy called Anton who had cleaned up his room quickly and was in bed early. His mother came to say goodnight and complimented him and told him a long story of

"A boy called Bill who has played long and then cleaned up his room just in time for his mother to tell him a story of

"A boy called Charles who didn't like cleaning up and argued with his mother but in the end tidied up"""

(here I make a sudden motion or sound and say "interrupt") 

""when suddenly the mother of Bill left" and the mother of Anton left"

and now I have to go too.  

The pattern is recursion with interrupt or exception handling.

Parallel story

This is a method to train keeping track of multiple threads and their relation in simple settings.

There are two main variants:

  1. Both plots are in the same world and are coordinated or interact
  2. Both plots are in parallel universes and elucidate differences of action and results 

The common aspect is that these stories use coordinated time. Time in both plots is advanced at the same rate and the plots are continuously alternated.

The stories were longer and I will try to give only a feel for them here:

Sandra is a strong girl but often angry she thinks that nobody likes her.

The other Sandra is also strong but calm and friendly.

Both have had their first day at school recently.

The first Sandra gets bumped into in turbulence in the morning. She gets angry and pushes back. A boy stumbles and cries and calls her names. Two other children try to moderate but scold her. She trudges to her place sadly.  

The second Sandra also gets bumped into but smiles and makes a joke about the bumping and all laugh. She quickly reaches her place and can prepare for class.

This repeats with more typical school situations. Where the first Sandra gets more and more cast out. Then it ends with a situation where the anger of the first Sandra actually gives her the power to help some other girl which is attacked by some boys. This situation gives Sandra positive feedback and appreciation by the class.

This structure can use to compare the following aspects on the two threads:

  • opposites (one actor acts positively while the other acts negatively and the consequences are elaborated as above) 
  • effect of small random perturbations (butterfly effect)
  • coordination (the actors interact which each other (or a common third actors) to some end)    

Forking stories

These are basically the same as the stories told by the game master in role playing or the story in a game book. The main differences are that choices are limited, highlighted and possibly discussed. The idea is to make the concept of a fork in the story or process clear.

I have told stories about 

  • being alone in the woods (exploring ways to get home; this developed in the end into two parallel tracks when at a choice point both ways were followed)
  • conflict in school
  • a quest with a dragon (where the dragon is found to be a large herbivore like in The Name of the Wind )
  • a serial story which is modeled on simple computer games (navigate thru a labyrinth, fight transforming monsters, climb a hill, best a giant - actually the giant from Enders Game)    

General remark about these stories

Stories are a way to avoid appearing indoctrinating by using an analog situation and leaving the choice to the child or even to explore both aspects of a choice. 

Sure, children will learn most of the principles taught earlier or later anyway. But research (see e.g. the refs by Trevor_Blake) shows that the advantage of children acquiring these earlier (or more reliable) will help them at least until college.

Some concepts will not stick. Some are not necessary for normal adult life. But nothing is lost compared to 'standard' bed time stories (except possibly some culturally relevant stories like little red ridinghood; but you can still read these too).