• Horst Kornberger

Time and how to tame it

Young children have no concept of time. Tell them to wait five minutes or two hours or until tomorrow — it all means the same to them: not now. And since now is all they know, the reaction is usually intense.

Children have no relation to the staccato of fragmented time. They are still attuned to the slow and steady pendulum swing of their biological clock, with its occasional chiming of seasons and its clear ciphers of night and day, meal-time, rest-time, play-time.

Children need to be initiated into time. As adults we forget the terrors of untamed time, but imagine for a moment living in a house where the location of rooms and furniture and everything else is constantly changing, and you get a spatial inkling of the stress a child experiences in the chaos of untamed time.

Initiation into time takes many years and is best achieved through rituals of regularity. A child thrives on regularity. Regularity means security and security means happiness. A well-established morning routine saves us from inventing each morning anew — along with endless negotiation and unnecessary power struggles. Through routine, the child develops a lifelong alliance with time, and the ability to flow with rather than push against its mighty current. Though it takes time and effort to establish a routine, it saves time in the end. One such routine is the telling of stories such as the Adventurous Day.

The Adventurous Day

The story of the adventurous day helps to befriend Giant Time. It calms the avalanche of events and assists in digesting the chunks of daily experience. Told in the evening, it directs the chaotic currents of time into the riverbed of sleep.

The adventurous day is the simplest of stories, and an excellent place to start your career as storyteller. As in the last exercise, you begin by inventing a name for your imaginary hero, who will experience in story-space what your child has experienced during the day. Through this device the story becomes separated enough from the child’s reality to be interesting.

Starting with an invocatory phrase like ‘Once upon a time’ increases the impact. Such words have a magical effect: they are doorways into the timeless realm of story.

Remember that the child’s life is adventurous. Every back yard is a world to be explored, every outing a journey into the unknown. Every day an adventure of its own. Take the child’s world as seriously as you do your own. Treat it as story-worthy, and retell your child’s day in a lively manner. There is no need to dramatise it. Just try to see the pictures inwardly, then elaborate on the particulars. Do not be afraid of repeating basic details, they will most likely be reassuring rather than boring.

A good time to start this story is at the age of three, when the child begins to say ‘I’. Here is an example I have written to illustrate this:

Once there was a girl called Mira who lived with her mum and a cat in a large house. The cat’s name was Mr Pussum. Every morning when Mira woke up she looked for Mr Pussum. And sometimes Mr Pussum was there and sometimes he wasn’t. This time he was already up and about. So Mira ran straight into the kitchen. And there was her mum and Mr Pussum.

Mira gave Mr Pussum a bowl of milk and Mr Pussum licked it all clean. Then her mum gave Mira a bowl of porridge and Mira ate it all up.

Then Mira took all her wooden blocks from her basket and began to build. First she made a tower that was almost as tall as she was, but the tower did not want to be so tall and fell down. And when the tower had once more fallen down all by itself and then once more because Mira wanted it to, Mira started to build a house for her doll Sheryl, with a garage on the side.

Then it was time to go shopping. Mira and her mum passed the yellow Post Office at the corner of their street and the school with the flag on the flag-post waving hello to them. At the supermarket Mira climbed into a large shopping trolley and helped her mum to put stack all the cans and packets.

They drove home, past the flag on the flag-post waving goodbye to them and past the yellow Post Office at the corner of their street. Back home Mira’s mother started to cook. Mira took some pots and started to cook too. Mira stirred and stirred and stirred and when she had stirred enough, lunch was ready. Her Mum gave Mira a bowl of soup and Mira was so hungry she ate it all. Then Mira wanted a toast with honey, but mum said that the honey always had a nap at noon and that she had to wait until afternoon tea.

While her mum washed the dishes Mira gave Sheryl a bowl of the soup she had made. Sheryl was very hungry and ate it all up. Then Sheryl wanted honey. But Mira said the honey was having a nap and she had to wait for afternoon tea. So Sheryl and Mira had a nap and afterwards Mira went to play in the sandpit. When the honey was awake again, Mira and Sheryl and Mum had their tea. Mr Pussum came and sniffed at the toast, but did not want honey. ‘I prefer cat food,’ he said and slinked away. Mira too had a lot to do and followed him into the yard.

Mira baked sand-cakes all afternoon, until her mother called her. She had found two lonely woodblocks complaining about being left behind. Mira quickly put them back and all the other blocks cheered as they returned to their home. Mira gave Mr Pussum his food, had a bath and then ate supper with her mum. She was very hungry from all that baking and cooking and shopping and building and bathing and ate everything on her plate.

Then it was time for bed. Mira said good night to Mr Pussum, took Sheryl and carefully tucked her under her sheet. Mum told Mira a story, sang a song and kissed her good night. When her mum closed the door to Mira’s room, Mira’s eyes closed too and she fell fast asleep.

The Pitfalls of Thought and Sentiment

There are two pitfalls that can spoil a hero’s adventures. The first is thought. Heroes are doers, not thinkers. They get up and get on with it. They don’t contemplate or plan ahead. They follow their feet. Children are such heroes. Avoid weighing down their actions with the heavy burden of thought like this:

Lucy lay in bed for a while and thought, shall I go outside or shall I crawl into Mummy and Daddy’s bed or shall I … Even if the child is a bit ponderous, it need not be encouraged in story time. The story is not just about the child. It is about the hero. The other trap is sentimentality. True heroes want no bar of it. All it does is drown their adventures in the syrup of misplaced feelings:

It was the most beautiful morning. George woke with a smile. His mummy had prepared a yummy porridge and a cup of his favourite drink, lovely milk with sweet honey.

Use words like beautiful, lovely and yummy sparingly, like spice on good food. It goes without saying that mornings are beautiful, that the parents are the best of parents, that the food is good and honey sweet.

When George woke up he could smell the porridge his mother had made. He got out of bed, brushed his teeth, washed his face and ran into the kitchen …

That is a hero’s way to wake up and tackle his day. Take your clues from good stories and fairytales. They have a tale to tell and they do it. They don’t linger in elaborate description and ornate language, they march straight in to the adventure.

Excerpt from The Power of Stories by Horst Kornberger

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