Every night we gather with our four boys, ranging in age from one to nine years old, and read a Bible story that was specifically written for children. We go through the story, they ask questions, and we all learn something. At the end, we pray. Sometimes they pray, but mostly a grown up prays. They listen.
Our nightly routine doesn’t just impart factual information about our faith (although it does that, too). It also harnesses the power of storytelling, something we’ve seen firsthand through years of coaching and teaching speech and debate. For us, this isn’t just a cozy ritual. It’s a special time of sharing that we believe is critical to our boys’ development. Further, it’s an intentional way to point them to God by connecting them to others. It’s not complicated, and it’s not glamorous. But it’s very effective.
As parents, we understand that our sons live in a world where masculinity is conflated with isolation, stoicism, and pride. As believers, we reject such an interpretation of manhood. These attributes are extremely unhealthy for anyone—man or woman. More important, they are the opposite of the connection, emotion, and humility Jesus demonstrated.
Countering prevalent views on masculinity requires intentional action. While there are many ways to foster connection and emotional health, there’s one tool that has worked especially for us: storytelling. Stories are accessible to everyone in a family, from very young children to their more seasoned parents. Moreover, they are more interesting than formal instruction. For kids captivated by Nintendo Switches and YouTube content, that’s mission critical.
We love Bible stories, but almost every story can point people to the gospel. As the writer Paul noted, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worth of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8). Intentionally sharing and listening to stories from everyone in the family accomplishes three things:
Stories connect us.
One of the lies of toxic masculinity is that real men can make it on their own. This encourages emotional isolation. On the contrary, emotionally healthy people (both men and women) are vulnerable and deeply connected to others. Stories do that.
At the dinner table every night we spend time telling the highlight and lowlight of our days. Everyone gets a turn, and the rest of us listen. It’s a structured way to share and listen to stories. It’s also a way for us to gain some insight into our sons’ lives, which is especially important as they grow.
Telling stories can also help us bear each other’s burdens. When my oldest son ran into friend issues at school, he told all of us each night during dinner story time. We didn’t necessarily solve the problem, but we grieved together and entered his frustration with him. At the end of the day, just listening to him talk about his day reminded him that his family loves and cares for him unconditionally.
This presents a clear picture of the gospel, as well. Healing from God follows repentance: Calling out to God and being honest about where we are in that moment. The family provides a tangible place to practice that kind of sharing and love.
On the church level, this type of sharing often takes the form of small groups. Our local body of believers has time set aside regularly on Sunday mornings where we just eat and talk to one another. This has led to all kinds of other connections: swapping baby clothes, play dates, and ministry opportunities. More important, these connections remind us that we aren’t alone as we face the harshness and beauty of life.
Stories heal us.
One of the lies we’ve had to un-teach our sons is that boys don’t cry. On the contrary, sometimes, trauma happens and people need to let it out. In these cases, telling a person’s story can be cathartic and even therapeutic. And it doesn’t have to have a neat and tidy ending. Simply sharing your personal experience can be a great way to work through it.
Teaching our boys to tell and listen to stories helps them express themselves in a healthy, meaningful way. It’s a way to vent frustrations and hurts before these emotions manifest in less healthy ways. That’s important. Society is riddled with examples in which men have failed to communicate adequately, and it has resulted in devastation.
Stories humble us.
American masculinity is too often linked with pride. However, humility is included as one of the fruits of the spirit in Galatians 5. Stories require people to listen, really listen. This is important because it helps us learn about other perspectives. For example, boys can learn a lot about women by listening to women. Equally important, listening to someone shows that you value them. So just listening to someone’s story shows that you view them as important and worthy of your time.
In church, this means being intentional about deeply listening to the entire body of believers—not just the hired holy men. One of the saddest implications of complementarian theology is the idea that women should be quiet around men. The reality is that men, and our four boys specifically, stand to gain a wealth of knowledge and wisdom from listening to godly women. Their lives are impoverished when half the church is silent.
In the end, we aren’t perfect parents. Raising sons who form their own faith is a product of God’s grace. But we believe that stories connect us, heal us, and humble us. They teach our boys how to imitate Jesus, not the popular figures who fixate on men being “real men” as the answer to our problems. They prepare our boys to learn from the girls and women around them and respect them as equals. Stories are a significant part of rearing our boys in an emotionally healthy way. For us, this means to have hearts strong enough to withstand the risk of human connection and tender enough to recognize the infinite value of the other.
Tonight, God willing, we will send our boys off to bed with another story. It’s been a busy day, and it’s possible that someone might fall asleep. But, we will make time because it’s that important. In the same way that Jesus influenced through the power of storytelling and listening to others share, we can influence our children and the world around us.
This article appeared in “Boys Don’t Cry: A Crisis of Vulnerability,” the Autumn 2018 issue of Mutuality magazine. Read the full issue here.