The “tell me one hundred stories all day long” solution:
I used to long for the day I could tell Elsie a story and she would be engaged and ask for certain details and play an active part in the storytelling situation. When I could tell her a story and she would lay there, listening intently and enjoying the deep characters I created and their interactions.
Well, actually. That day has come, and it’s far from sunshine and roses. Sure, she likes my stories, but she wants them over and over again with tiny variation but not enough to make them interesting to the storyteller. If I dare to go off-script, I am often met with, “That’s not interesting!” which, fair cop.
My dad used to tell us a story about the girl who had no teeth. She wouldn’t brush her teeth so they fell out and she asked her parents/siblings etc. if they could make her new ones out of various things like wood, pins, etc. The “teeth” were unpleasant, so she cried at night and the tooth fairy paid her a visit, replacing her teeth and making her promise to always brush her teeth from now on. Innocent enough.
Elsie was recently exposed to this story, at my suggestion, and I was delighted to discover how much she loved it. Until…
“Tell me the story about no girl with no teeth,” she insisted.
“You mean THE girl with no teeth,” I corrected her, stupidly.
“No! That’s not interesting!”
So, I told her the story.
“I want that one again,” said Elsie, simply.
So, I told it again, my mind racing to think of new, impractical materials the teeth could be made from.
Eventually, Elsie started changing the story somewhat. Instead of “and the teeth made from broken glass weren’t very good,” Elsie began to insist that they were “really good,” and she wouldn’t accept any pushback. I needed some way to keep the plot moving. Our heroine – which, at this point might easily be a monkey, crocodile, Otto, teacher, or any other creature who might be expected to usually be in possession of teeth – couldn’t be left with a mouthful of broken glass for teeth. And, anyway, if the story ended there, I’d have to start all over again.
“Okay,” I said, “the broken glass teeth were fine, but… she still needed new teeth because… she needed to use the broken glass for something else.” This seemed to satisfy her. But it didn’t satisfy me. Because it is utterly exhausting thinking up words to say when the demand is so constant but the audience so unappreciative.
So, I discovered a hack.
“No elephant with no teeth-” because that’s how we phrase it in this household, “went and asked…?” At this point, Elsie thinks out loud for awhile and then chooses the unqualified dentist.
“Um… um… ummmm… he asks his mamma.”
And what does his mamma make his new teeth out of?”
“Um… um… ummmmmmmmmm… she makes them out of the… um…” At this point, she is staring wildly around the room, moving her whole head in a dramatic, cartoonish way. “She makes them out of washing machines.”
“Okay, Elsie, and that’s good, is it?”
“Yes, it’s really good.”
“Washing machines make good teeth?”
“Okay, but then the elephant needs to use the washing machines to wash clothes with, so the elephant needs to find new teeth again. Okay? So no elephant with no teeth goes and asks his…?”
And so it goes. The genius of this storytelling style is that you get a break from the constant content creation that comes with classic storytelling techniques, and your kid stays engaged, because you’ve passed the buck onto them. The story can go for as long as you like, because you no longer have to come up with more than just the glue that holds the pieces together.
It can be tempting to interrupt the flow by trying to insist to your toddler that no, surely poop teeth are not good teeth, and that nobody should be putting poop in their mouths, let alone giving it to their kids to put in their mouths, but DON’T. Nothing is louder than an outraged almost-three-year-old, slighted at the idea that you think their suggestion for replacement teeth is bad.
This tip I give to you for free. I hope you find it useful. I look forward to the day it works on the other kid who, at this point, is still in the “books are for eating” phase of his literary career.