Friday, July 18, 2014

You Are Putty in a Storyteller's Hands

For most of my adolescent life, my mother owned and operated a daycare center in our home. It was always loud, messy, and crazy, but those were some of my fondest memories. She converted our garage into a playroom, our backyard into a playground, and our living room into what she called "the classroom." It was the perfect business for mom. She got to stay home and get paid to do what she did best: raising kids. The parents who signed up for her babysitting services adored her, and many of them quickly became family friends. They even got special perks when they picked up their children - homemade Filipino food.

Business was booming, but she was already reaching maximum capacity to run a home-based child care center. During the summer, I had to help her out. While she was busy changing dirty diapers or feeding the babies, I took care of the older ones. "Lucky" for me, the older ones were a group of five boys with ages ranging from 6 to 8 years old. I was 13 or 14 years old at the time, so I couldn't just drive them to the movies to sit them down quietly somewhere. I had to get creative. Rollerblading in the kitchen? That worked for about five minutes until everyone started falling down on purpose and mom had to cook her endless supply of lumpia and pancit. Splashing around the water sprinklers? Fun, but only for a limited time.

So I told them stories in the living room. Much to my mom's relief, I kept the boys out of harm's way and entertained them at the same time. I didn't always like kids, but I sure did love the power of captivating an audience. We were a match made in heaven. There were certain stipulations from this relationship, though. These boys wanted original stories. I couldn't simply just read to them.  They were bored with books because as they proudly declared, "I know how to read them by myself."

They refused to listen to my version of fairy tales or folk tales because "they're too babyish," and they "already know what happens next anyway." So by popular demand, I had to make up stories right there on the spot. The scarier, the better. The grosser, the better.

That was the year she told me, "You'd make a great teacher someday." She knew it 15 years before I ever stepped foot in my first classroom.

"No, Mom, I'm not patient with them. They're so annoying. And besides, I like to write."

I had different plans. I was going to move to NYC to become a writer/editor/boss of Sassy magazine like Jane. I spent my time making magazine mock-ups with friends, getting to know the voices of the writers, and making up stories for the "It Happened to Me" column that never really happened to me. I wrote stories. That's what I've always done.

Fast-forward two decades and one career change later, I'm a teacher.

But the storyteller in me didn't die. In fact, it created an entrepreneur in me. With the creative development of my husband, my stories became books, which came equipped with videos, voice-over narration, a virtual teacher with tutorials, and original songs to boot. When I taught elementary school, storytelling was still my favorite party trick!
I didn't realize, however, that it was more than just a party trick until I came across Jonathan Gottschall's article from Fast Company. It explained that for over twenty years, psychologists have been seriously studying how stories affect the human mind. "Fiction," it stated, "seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than writing that is specifically designed to persuade through argument and evidence."

In other words, we are putty in a storyteller's hands. Oh, I see now! I...have...the...power!!!!

This is why the most savvy marketing professionals know that storytelling is what gets even the most capable business executives suckered into their products, ideas, or whatever they're selling.
I have mixed feelings about the theory of using storytelling in business and marketing. On one hand, it's pretty encouraging for an entrepreneur like me to have a story or two to tell to inspire others. On the other hand, I feel that many think the stories themselves are the products, or worse, the advertisement. They're not.

Stories, whether they are fact or fiction, stem from ingenuity. Stories are crafted with power. With emotion. With characters that live within the hearts and minds of the teller and the audience. Mix those ingredients with business - it can get explosive. 
For example, when people first learn that I'm an author, I'm very careful about responding to their questions. I often get asked two questions.

The first is,  "Who is your publisher?" and the next one is, "How many books have you sold?"

Business owners want to do the math in their heads to get an idea on how much revenue I've generated and whether they'd want to invest in my next project. If it's anything less than what they had in mind, they think it's a waste of time. Amateur writers want the hook-up on how to get their own books published and distributed without doing their own leg work.

Time and again, I've had to say, "We're not in the book-selling business." Then they get confused because they're missing the whole story. 

Monday, July 7, 2014


Yesterday, along with millions of other active Facebook users, I posted a mundane status update. "Women of the world," I beckoned. "I have something very important to ask you: Do you like Angelina Jolie? Why or why not?"

And leave it to my awesome circle of friends willing to take the time to humor me, I got more than a dozen responses. Some said, "No, I don't like her. She's a home wrecker."

Others said, "Yes, I like her. She's a humanitarian, a talented actress, and a knockout!"

One chimed in to remind us of Jolie's shady past. "I never got over her kissing her brother."

Then the comic relief rolled in when one woman wrote, "No I don't like her. I don't need a reason to feel the way I do because...'Murica."

More insights came from another comment-poster who bluntly wrote, "I see some of her movies, but that's the extent of my thoughts toward her. Roald Dahl was a disgusting pervert, but we still buy his books. The art world is a fickle place."

I was thrown off by one comment because I didn't expect my post to be taken seriously. She wrote, "I mean this not disrespectfully but as my honest answer: this is not important."

Of course it wasn't important! Now I know why people have implored developers to develop a sarcasm font. I cleared that up for her, and I'm pretty sure she was relieved to know that I am, in fact, right in the head.

Then I thought about it some more and asked myself, "Why in the world would I post something so stupid like that?"

No, it's not because...'Murica. 

The real reason is that I wanted to know how other women view an American woman who is perceived to hold both power and beauty at her fingertips. My nine year-old daughter Zoe, standing on the cusp of adolescence, is in a period of major transition in social and cognitive development. So when she watches a movie like Angelina Jolie's Maleficent, you better believe I'm going to want to find out everything about it. I'm going to need to know if the actress is conveying the right message for little girls like Zoe.

I also need to know what my other women friends, whether they are stay at home moms with multiple children, professional working mothers, married women without children, or single women with no children think about it because I value their opinions. It's a similar concept to: "It takes a village." Like all mothers with daughters, I want mine to grow up armed with self-confidence, ready to take on the world. I want to know from other women how they think we can make that happen. I know full well that I can't shield Zoe from all the dangers in this world, especially the dangers of media, but I'm going to find out as much as I can about it. I'm going to ask questions to my dear Women of the World, "What do you think of Angelina?" Is her dangerous sexuality a cautionary tale for young women? Or is she the embodiment of the modern female?

Actually, Naomi Wolf wrote an essay attempting to answer my very questions in a 2009 Harper's Bazaar issue. But maybe a movie is just a movie, and an actress is just an actress. We don't need an "ego ideal" to aspire to empowerment and liberation. She's human, just like us. That's fine and everything, but I still have a daughter to raise. I need to do it right in a world where everything seems to go wrong.

As parents, we spend a lot of time thinking of ways to empower our children, making sure they know how to handle themselves in difficult situations. I know I spend a good deal of time thinking about what I might say to teach Zoe when she needs to bounce back from inevitable setbacks and learn from her mistakes. I know how to plan for conversations like these because I've been a teacher for ten years. Having taught elementary schools for the better part of my career and transitioning into teaching middle school, I've got a good perspective on girls dealing with the confusing blend of new social pressures and mixed signals from society about what it means to be a "strong girl." So as a seasoned teacher, parenting should come easy for me, right?


Because we can totally just follow the curriculum map on parenting. We can collaborate with a group of expert parents and have professional development meetings to exchange ideas on how to get our kids to do amazing things, like be a Kid President. Then afterwards, we can Google "raising your little girl" and apply all the 10, 25, 30 tips from every mommy blog on the Internet. We can all get together in the conference room to watch the awesome social media campaign video about how girls really run and then throw our kids the iPad to tell them to watch and learn. (Insert html sarcasm font here).

After all of that hard work, we can go home and explain to our daughters nicely, "Sweetie, Mommy has a headache right now, so I'm going to need a nap."
And when we wake up from our blissful, uninterrupted sleep, we will awaken from smiling faces happily reporting to us that they've finished reading a few chapters from their summer reading projects, wrote a few dialectical journal entries, sewed some pillows and handbags, and opened up an Etsy store to support a group of poor girls who live in a village in the Philippines - all while we were napping!

Because that's what happened to me.

Well, not really. I mean, yes, I've woken up from a few naps to happily discover that Zoe had taught herself to sew adorable little toss pillows  with clever design details. She was busy for quite some time and happy to leave me alone. How did I get her to do that? Did we restrict her TV and game privileges? No. Did we have a set schedule for her during the summer? No. Did we make her take a sewing class so that we can operate a sweatshop? HAHA. Yup.

No, we didn't. We do not own a sweatshop, people, come on! No sarcasm here. I'm telling you the truth.

But that little girl developed an undeniable entrepreneurial spirit. She's relentless with her projects and people (other than her family members) are starting to notice. 

I'm going to tell you a secret about how you can get your daughter to be independently productive while simultaneously developing self-confidence. All it takes is for you to...

Shut up. Just shut up.

No, I'm serious. Sometimes, we just need to shut down our "parenting mode" for a little while to quiet our minds, quiet ourselves, and know when to shut up and listen. 

Stop talking, stop hovering, stop planning, stop scheduling, stop stressing, stop lecturing, and start watching her. Really watch. When we watch and observe our children, we can listen to what they're talking about and hear their voices. And when we hear them, amazing things happen. Real conversations begin. Ideas are born. Creativity happens, and then work becomes play.

And suddenly, so beautifully, she's learning authentically and doing amazing things you don't even know how to do. But she needs you there to assure her it's okay to mess up because you don't know how to do it, either, and you'll be there to watch her figure it out. Trial and error. Then repeat the process without pressuring her to deliver results. 

That little piece of "shut up" advice that I just gave you - it's the real deal. It's not always going to be easy to follow when you have to find that balance of authority. Let me clarify that I am in no way suggesting that you give up total control and just let your kids do whatever they want all day long and remain silent. Don't remain silent when they're turning the oven on and shoving their plastic bats and half-eaten hot dogs wrapped in aluminum foil in there to conduct a science experiment. That's not the time to watch what happens next. No, not at all.

To "shut up" is to let her figure out new things without being too overbearing with your unsolicited advice. Provide a safe environment for her to be messy without feeling stressed out for spilling a bottle of blue dye on the carpet or knocking down one of your Precious Moments figurines off the shelf. If she's made it past five years old safe and sound, then you're doing well. She knows your boundaries and expectations. Give her some wiggle room, and let her do it herself. Even better, if she has a great daddy who has no qualms about helping his daughter learn how to crochet after playing baseball with her, then by all means, do "shut up" and plan your getaway. Leave them be and watch what happens. It will melt your heart. 

I've caught myself trying too hard to find the right opportunities during my day-to-day experiences with Zoe where I can find teachable moments to guide her through life. I still struggle with the "shut up" advice because I still plan, schedule, talk, lecture, hover, stress, and think way too hard about how I should raise a strong, smart, brave girl. What I'm missing is that she's effortlessly Zoe. She doesn't have to be any adjective I wish for her to be or whatever society thinks our future generation should be. So when I tell myself to "shut up," I'm really just reminding myself to allow Zoe to be comfortable in her own skin. No pretense. Just let Zoe be. 

A big part of Zoe's life is having a teacher as her mother who can't seem to shut down her teacher and parent modes. Naturally, when we take a trip to Target for a rare "treat yo'self" occasion, dammit, we are going to have a lesson on math word problems and practical choices!

"Zoe, would you rather have the Poppytalk fold up cloth checkerboard game for $12, or the neon blue kinetic sand that looks like the one we saw from Brookstone at Northpark for $14?"

"I want the Poppytalk fold up cloth checkerboard! Look, it has DIY crafts tutorials in her website!!!" she said excitedly, already dreaming about her own line of DIY products.

Yay! She chose the more educational item!!! I gotta pat myself on the back for that one. Wait, really?

Did I really think I was empowering her by shopping at Target? Maybe. I learned that not everything needs to be a teachable moment. Just like in my classroom, there are times when I need to throw my lesson plans out the window to allow my students the freedom to learn. In raising my little girl, it's not so much about the carefully constructed act of raising her, but simply the act of being there with her. It's about being present to witness her growth, and to allow myself to experience the way she sees the world through her eyes. And man, when I do that, the world is full of goodness and possibilities. What a gift!

Which brings me back to how hours later, I'm still thinking about Angelina Jolie. There's an article I saw that says Maleficent fails children.

GASP!!! Oh no! Zoe saw that movie with me, and she liked it! I failed my child. The world will no longer be good for her. No, no, no.

I had to make this right, I thought. So before bed, I prepared a serious talk in my head to tell her about villains and heroines. I thought I could use Maleficent to teach her healthier ways to channel her anger if she ever does become a woman scorned. Oh, dear, here we go again with the relentless lesson planning. 

"Zoe, remember the movie Maleficent with that actress Angelina Jolie?" I asked her.

Deep sigh. "Yes." She could detect a long, serious talk from miles away, and she was trying desperately not to let me catch her roll her eyes. 

"Well, in Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent is evil, but in this movie, they show a very different side of her..."

"I know, Mom," she interrupted. 

Okay, at this point, she wasn't going to allow me to ask her a million questions, especially that she was already dozing off. 

So I narrowed it down to one question: "Well, why did you like that movie so much?"

I feared that there could be an underlying cause for her to be rooting for evil. Have I failed to preserve her innocence? Is she so cynical at such a young age already? What is it?

"Because it's a good story."

Oh. Well then maybe a movie is just a movie, and an actress is just an actress and my question wasn't all that important, but I had to ask. When it has to do with my child, though, it's important.