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My Latest #DadWin? I Transformed Story Time Into a Major Toddler Bonding Experience

"It can be easy for me to feel like a third wheel in the relationship between my daughter and her mother, but these stories are special and just between us."

Welcome to “#DadWins”, a new series where fathers explain a parenting hurdle they faced and the unique way they overcame it. This week, Jason, father of a 2-and-a-half-year-old explains how he used an ancient form of storytelling to keep her fleeting attention and score some quality father-daughter time.

It’s hard to talk to a 2-and-a-half-year-old girl. They have no world experience and a short attention span. Conversations with them mostly boil down to My Little Pony, “that’s mine,” and “leave me alone.”

My daughter Felix is this age. She also craves stimulating narratives, so she’s rather well-acquainted with the television. When she’s watching, you could stick her with needles and she wouldn’t react. She loves the TV.

But I needed something different. Kids want to talk about what’s interesting to them, but I can’t talk to Felix about My Little Pony. I don’t study it as hard as she does. But it’s important to me that we have things we can talk about, ways to pass time together. I’m happy to report, however,  that I’ve found a way to tell her stories that hold her attention and we both enjoy: repurposed Greek myths.

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You can read Edith Hamilton’s Mythology to get a sense of the source material: gods, goddesses, flying horses, immortality, and adventure. I repurpose a lot of it and tell her shortened versions of stories. Sometimes the original versions are scary or intense. Felix doesn’t need to know the specifics; usually, Zeus has sex with a girl and turns her into a swan. (This does not make for good children’s literature, so I do a little rewriting.)

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Ever since Felix learned that Medusa had snakes for hair, that’s been her favorite character. I’ve told her stories ranging from “Medusa fights the Loch Ness monster” to “Medusa cleans her room.” She was sick last night, so I told her a story about how Medusa got over being sick.

She lights up at these stories. It’s like I’m writing her favorite comic book on the fly, or creating her very own Netflix serial. It’s as though Medusa is her favorite superhero or something. 

I have another favorite storytelling tactic, too. There’s a dialogue-free comic book series called Frank, by Jim Woodring, and I get a lot of mileage out of “reading” it with Felix. She’ll sit in my lap as I improvise dialogue and details for each panel. She’s totally engaged, and chimes in with her own details as well.

medusa head

These storytelling methods work to win my daughter’s attention because, as I tell the story, I focus on the component that isn’t boring. That’s the only way to get a kid to pay attention for more than 30 seconds. Before you know it, it’s memorable quality time together. So I consider it a big win.

It bears mentioning that these narratives are interesting to me as well. I’m also entertained, also getting something out of it. When you’ve got a series of stories that you can use to fill your child’s time and enjoy at the same time, it’s more fun and meaningful for both of you.

I might be more naturally suited to mythology than others — my girlfriend and I run a mermaid production company in Austin. As a dad, it can be easy for me to feel like a third wheel in the relationship between my daughter and her mother, but these stories are special and just between us.

To whatever degree there’s a takeaway here for other dads, it’s this: find narratives that are interesting to you, then kid them up for your children. They can be anything, they can come from anywhere. Just don’t be boring.

-as told to Dylan Love

Jason Darling runs the Austin-based mermaid production studio Sirenalia with his girlfriend.

Have a #dadwin you’d like to share? Tag @Fatherlyhq on Twitter using the hashtag #fatherlydadwin or send an email to dadwins@fatherly.com.