Paul Smith on Teaching Children Character Through Stories: Tips for Getting Started

Photo of Paul Smith, author of Parenting with a Story The following is a guest post from Paul Smith, storytelling expert and author of Parenting with a Story: Real Life Lessons in Character for Parents and Children to Share.

Most children will tune you out if you tell them what to do. However, if you show them how choices and consequences play out in the real world, with real people, the impact will be far more profound. In Parenting with a Story, I offer tips to help parents, grandparents, teachers and counselors overcome the three biggest barriers to start teaching character traits to the next generation through story.

Barrier #1: I don’t have any good stories to tell.


Probe your past. Here are the questions I found most useful at eliciting great stories. Ask them of yourself and you’re bound to find several:

  • Tell me about a time in your life when you learned an important but completely unexpected lesson, or learned it in an unexpected way.
  • What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made? Why?
  • What have been your biggest regrets thus far in life? Think of one thing you did and wish you hadn’t, and one thing you didn’t do and wish you had.
  • What are three of the smartest decisions you’ve ever made?
  • Describe a vivid memory you have as a child where you felt terrible about how you made someone else feel.
  • Describe a time when you faced someone or something you were truly afraid of. How did it turn out?
  • Can you remember a time as a child when you did something you’d been told not to do and you did it anyway? Do you wish you had obeyed and hadn’t done it? Or are you glad you did it anyway?
  • Tell me about a time in your life when you learned a hard lesson about the value of _________. Then fill in the blank with a character trait of interest.

Barrier #2: I’m not sure when to tell these stories.


  • Jacket image of Parenting with a Story by Paul Smith Opportunistically – The best time to share stories like these is opportunistically – that moment when the need for it arises naturally in the course of your parenting. In fact, I’m of the mind that if you have to say, “Sit down and be quiet and listen. I’m going to tell you a story now,” you’re probably doing it wrong.
  • Dinnertime is still a great time for stories. If your overscheduled lives have taken this sacred time from you, reinstate it. It worked for centuries, and it still can. This is when your successes and failures from the day will turn into stories that explain the lessons you learned from them.
  • Bedtime – Especially for younger kids, bedtime is always a great time for stories. Most kids would rather hear a true story about something stupid you did as a kid (and the lesson you learned) than hear you read another tired bedtime story from an old book anyway.

Barrier #3: I don’t know how to tell stories very well.


  • First of all, relax. You’re not filming a Hollywood movie. Your kids don’t care if you flub your lines. You’re just telling a story to people who love you.
  • How do you memorize these stories well enough to deliver? Answer: Don’t. It’s too hard, and nobody wants to hear a story that sounds like it’s been memorized, especially your kids. Instead, read through it enough times to understand the basic plot. Then imagine that it happened just down the street and you were an eyewitness to the whole thing. Now go tell someone what happened – in your own words. If you do it that way, it won’t sound like a story you read in a book. It might sound different every time you tell it, but that’s ok. That’s how stories become legends.

Paul Smith is a dedicated father and speaker on leadership and storytelling techniques. As the author of the popular Lead with a Storyhe has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Time, Forbes, The Washington Post, Success, and Investor’s Business Daily, among others. Listen to Parenting with a Story Podcast: Real-life lessons in character for parents and children to share



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