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Tough Crowd This storytelling dad faces a pint-sized critic

The biggest surprise in going from one child to two is that I was — somehow, in spite of everything — unprepared for how much more exhausted I would be once my second daughter was born. Looking back, it sounds absurd: We were increasing our workload, so naturally we would be more tired, right? But two children feel like three or four times the work at least, and I’m not even the one breastfeeding.

It’s not just a matter of being sleepy. More and more, I’m feeling tapped out creatively, too, at least when it comes to entertaining the children. To make matters worse, for the past few months my 3-year-old has been relentlessly moving the goal posts. My suggestions of activities or outings that were once cause for mild celebration are now met with grumbles and whines — it’s like I’m saying “library” and she’s hearing “dentist” — and the stories she once loved to hear just aren’t cutting it anymore.

Bedtime, for example, usually includes a couple of tales read from books, then a couple more told once the lights go out. But she’s become increasingly dissatisfied with the usual rotation of stories we’ve been telling and is now requesting oral renditions of stories like “Frozen” and “Moana.” Ever tried to summarize a feature film for a pint-sized Ebert who knows the plot inside out? It’s even harder than it sounds. And it takes a while.

Look, I’m a realist, so it’s not like I expected “The Three Little Pigs” to last forever. But I was unprepared for her response when I offered to tell her that one a few days ago. “That’s weak,” she declared. “That story is old and weak.”

(Couple of things: First, this language, I did not teach her. I don’t think her mother did, either. Second, my rendition of “The Three Little Pigs” is neither old nor weak. It has jokes, social commentary and celebrity cameos, including Marlon Brando as the wolf, but I digress … .)
But at least with the existing movie plots, I had something to work with. Recently, she’s escalated to just providing me with a list of seemingly random story ingredients and demanding that I spin a yarn involving all of them. Earthquakes, volcanoes and Batman was one combination she came up with recently; another was Rumpelstiltskin and “a bird-shaped volcano.”

Most of the time, I’ll dive in and start tying one absurd story thread to another. I’ve managed to describe earthquakes in Gotham City and the further adventures of Rumpelstiltskin to the young critic’s satisfaction. But, sometimes, one must draw the line, such as when I was told to “tell ‘Moana’ but without lava or bad guys and where no one steals the heart of Te Fiti.” Those familiar with the movie will understand that she may as well have asked me to retell “The Iliad” without the Trojan War.

The demands aren’t just limited to bedtime. On a recent drive to school she asked me to talk to her about volcanoes (volcanology is an intermittent obsession these days; we’re fine with it as long as she doesn’t start demanding field trips). I obliged, offering a few half-remembered facts from grade-school science lessons. “Keep talking about volcanoes,” she said when I thought I had finished, so I added a bit about island formation and giant ash clouds that can disrupt air travel. “Keep talking about volcanoes,” she demanded once again.

But, reader, I had nothing left. “That’s all I know about volcanoes,” I finally, reluctantly admitted, prompting a whining sulk from the back seat. ”Hey, we’ve all got problems, kid,” I thought.

Now, I’m certainly not saying that any of this is bad. It’s great that she’s curious, it’s great that she wants new information, and her increasingly bizarre story requests are (I hope), evidence that her own imagination is thriving. Surely the fact that she’s making these suggestions in the first place indicates she’s already starting to make up these stories herself and needs help fleshing them out.
It’s good, but it’s a bit much for a sleep-deprived, exhausted brain.

And while the fussy, teething 8-month-old younger sibling isn’t exactly helping on the exhaustion front, she’s at least a warm, receptive audience for all of my old material. Complex plots and science lectures? Forget it! The height of baby entertainment remains being tickled in the ribs with a stuffed animal, babbling nonsense back-and-forth with an adult, having raspberries blown on the tummy or “walking” in circles while holding on to grown-up fingers.

She’ll be demanding more soon enough, but I’m clinging to these little pleasures for now. And when she’s ready, I’ve got a version of “The Three Little Pigs” that’s going to blow her tiny mind.

Daniel Leaderman writes the “Dad  Reckoning” blog for Baltimore’s Child.

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