In the 1993 movie Groundhog Day, Bill Murray plays an arrogant TV weatherman who, during a dreaded assignment covering the annual Groundhog Day event in Punxsutawney, finds himself living the same day over and over. Through trial and error, Bill learns to correct the mistakes he made the day before and escapes his time loop, redeeming himself in the process and winning the girl of his dreams.
Parents of younger children sometimes feel they are in their own time loop when their children ask to play the same game, watch the same video or hear the same story day after day, night after night. Many a parent has marveled at their child’s seemingly bottomless appetite for repetition. One dad said to me recently, “Having to tell the same story a dozen times is the easy part. The tedious part comes when you have to repeat the same story another 100 times!”
I had to smile. When my younger son was 8, he began his Star Wars phase, which lasted about two years. During this time, he asked me just about every night for a Star Wars story. I must have come up with a thousand variations on the theme. I made up stories about Luke Skywalker as a young boy. Luke as an old man. Luke in the next life. Luke in a previous life. I told stories about Obi-Wan saving Yoda from Darth Vader, Yoda saving Luke from Darth Vader and Darth Vader saving them both from the Evil Emperor. I came up with so many ideas I almost wrote George Lucas for a job as a scriptwriter.
My son eventually outgrew his Star Wars phase, but it prompted me to ask, why do kids love repeating the same activity over and over again?
I came to the conclusion that kids simply enjoy the comfort and security of repetition, whether it’s playing the same board game, watching the same movie or telling the same story. Think of it as an emotional security blanket.
This is especially true for storytelling. One of the most important educational benefits of storytelling is that it provides the emotional security children need to experiment and test issues in their own lives. Storytelling allows children to take learning risks in a safe environment, where they can study a character’s problems or challenges from a distance. Children also like hearing the same story again because they take comfort from the familiar.
Many educational experts agree that children’s fondness for repetition is completely normal and healthy. According to the Waldorf School philosophy, repetition gives order to children’s lives, which they need to grow and mature in a healthy way. Repetition also allows children to delve more deeply and imaginatively into the meaning and language of a story.
These explanations, of course, don’t solve the problem for a parent who’s tearing her hair out after being asked to tell Little Red Riding Hood for the umpteenth time. So what do you do?
Play Groundhog Day with them. One game I play with my kids in our nightly storytelling is to come back to a story on successive nights and change or refine it. Begin each story as in a prior telling, but change the ending. Better yet, let your kids come up with a new ending. On another night, add a new challenge or problem. If one particular solution to a problem doesn’t work, try another. Explore how the characters learn from their mistakes and what they might do differently next time. This is a great way to instill self-reflection and an appreciation of values.
Through the process of repetition and alteration, kids will learn to adapt and improve. They’ll gain confidence telling and changing a story on their own, develop their memories, and pick up new words and phrases. Most importantly, they’ll begin to think of themselves as storytellers and not just as story listeners.
So when your child asks for the same story again and again, my advice is, go with the flow. After all, repetition — sprinkled with variation — is often the best way for kids to learn. As the old saying goes, practice makes perfect.