10 Secrets to Telling an Awesome Bedtime Story

bedtime story

When I was pregnant, I obsessively researched and practiced chocolate chip cookie recipes. I was determined to be “the mom with the best chocolate chip cookies,” and it took years for me to accept that I may never perfect the extraordinary cookie of my dreams. That’s just not me; I set stoves on fire and over-mix boxed brownies. Somewhere along the way, I let go of that ideal. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I baked cookies for my son.

But every so often, I get down about my lack of “mom skills.” How will my son remember me? What’s my thing?

“I’m really bad at telling bedtime stories,” my friend admitted over coffee one day. “They ask me to make up stories off the top of my head, and I do anything to avoid it. I’m just the worst storyteller.”

And that’s when I realized, good gravy, I have a THING! I tell bedtime stories! Good ones! In fact, there are two stories in particular that I’ve been telling for over three years — like the story of Max the superhero dog who sneaks out of bed each night to solve a variety of problems around the world. I HAVE A THING!

I guess I never acknowledged that particular skill set because, to be honest, my stories aren’t extraordinary. They’re easy, basic, at times even lazy. And yet they’re a real source of bonding between my son and I — our bedtime stories are a special world that no one else has ever visited. Those characters have become part of our family.

For my friend (and so many parents), bedtime stories are yet another parenting trait we lack — like my baking. Except it doesn’t have to be that hard, people! Here are 10 easy steps for any parent to tell a killer bedtime story:

1. Stop telling yourself that you’re unimaginative.

So writing and storytelling isn’t your “thing,” that’s okay. But at least acknowledge that the panicky feeling you get when your kid asks for a bedtime story has more to do with your own insecurities than any real lack of skill. Because trust me — our kids don’t need us to whip up a bestselling idea. But if you can’t get over that hump and push through the resistance, the rest of these tips will mean next to nothing.

Once you’ve assured yourself that anyone can tell a decent bedtime story, that you’re not lacking anything, then you may proceed.

2. Use your kid as the main character.

This is an easy trick to get even the most critical child to engage. My most “famous” story — the one about Max the superhero dog — begins with the line, “There once was a little boy named Noah, who had a dog named Max. They were the best of friends and did everything together.” In the story, Noah thinks that Max is an ordinary dog. He has no idea that every night while Noah sleeps, Max flies around the world helping friends.

So while Noah isn’t the main character per say, he got a kick out of imagining himself in the story.


There’s no need to break our brains here. Bedtime stories happen at our most exhausted point, when every cell in our body is screaming, go to bed, kid! I get it. But our kids have very low expectations with short attention spans. Some of my stories — particularly one called “Hank the Tank” — is embarrassingly ridiculous, and yet my son loves it. Do you know why? Because his mother created it for him, and that’s special. Let go of your expectations and recognize that our kids just want a simple, easy story from us to them.

Here’s how our Hank the Tank stories go: “Once upon a time there was a man named Hank. His friends called him Hank the Tank. He was a very nice man, but sometimes he’d get very confused.” Why do his friends call him Hank the Tank, you might ask? Because it made my kid laugh. That’s about as deep as it goes.

4. When in doubt, stick to the Rule of 3s.

It’s a very familiar storyline structure — think “Three Little Pigs” or “Goldilocks.” Continuing with my Hank the Tank example, after I tell that brief and simple introduction, I then give three examples of Hank confusing ordinary things that any toddler can recognize — colors, shapes, seasons, etc. After the third example, I wrap it up with a conclusion and LIGHTS OUT.

Having a basic structure in your head makes it easier to plug in different examples.

5. Be enthusiastic!

Our facial expressions and silly voices can make up for even the laziest story structure.

6. Teach a lesson.

When Noah was little, the “Max stories” emphasized the importance of helping and problem solving, but we also touched on things like sharing or using kind words — whatever issues we were currently dealing with. It’s a sneaky way to slip in a lesson without turning it into a lecture.

7. Use stories you already know.

Instead of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” tell the story of Princess Pepper who liked to play practical jokes on her family (an opportunity to use humor and that “Rule of 3s” structure), and then when the Princess actually needed help, no one believed her.

No need to reinvent the wheel here. Take a beloved story, change a few key details — like the name and setting — and call it a night.

8. Tell a non-fiction story.

Did something funny happen to you as a kid? Do you have a compelling story about Grandma and Grandpa from your childhood? If it’s hard for you to come up with make-believe stories, use real life as a storytelling opportunity.

9. Leave it open-ended.

I must have told the Max story 100 times by now, each beginning and ending the same exact way. Yet each time I tell it, Max goes on a different adventure. That way I don’t have to come up with a brand new plot line every time he begs for a bedtime story — I just plug in a different challenge and be done.

10. Ask your child to participate.

Not only is it a good way to encourage storytelling practice, it’s perfect for those lazy nights when our brains stopped working. I’ll start by asking him for the character’s name, and then throughout the story I’ll prompt him with things like, “The little boy opened the closet and found …” Some nights he practically writes it himself, and I just guide the story along.

So go on, tell that story! Be silly! Let go of your expectations! It doesn’t have to be that hard.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll go make some basic, ordinary chocolate chip cookies. My kid doesn’t need them to be perfect — they’ll be special enough coming from me.


Image courtesy of Michelle Horton

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