A hypothetical family situation shows the construction
and the different ingredients we may use when we construct a metaphor for a child.

The Scenario

Robert is the second in a family with five children. From an early age he has shown outstanding abilities. Susanne is the third in the family. She lives under the shadow of her ‘clever’ older brother. The parents suspect, while she might be equally gifted, she is ‘underachieving’. The other children resent Robert. They believe he is showing off and call him: Robbie the Dockie. Robert gets angry at times. The parents tried persuasion and threats, but to no avail. Finally they decide to use a covert metaphor in an attempt to create mutual acceptance and better harmony amongst the children. The following is their bedtime story.

“Charlie was one of master rabbit’s children. Charlie, however, was so unlike his brothers and sisters”. (We transfer the family situation to the Third Party, e.g. a family of rabbits.)

“He was born with very keen eyes and so was able to see much further than the rest of the family”. (Robert has great vision, outstanding ability.)

“They, however, resented him and called him silly names like: Carroll the Smarty”. (This is not exactly a keyword, but it has the same rhythm and meaning: Putting down the bright one in the family. Keywords, unconsciously connect the real situation with the one in the story.)

“Charlie was very unhappy about this and got very angry at times”. (Here the story teller may also add some of the bright child’s minor characteristics for example ...never liked to brush his teeth...)

“Charlie really felt sad and his brothers and sisters weren’t too happy about it either”. (Matching the real-life situation.)

“One summer was hot and dry”. (Introducing an experience that leads to a solution, the desired outcome.)

“Food became scarcer and scarcer. Often they had to go hungry. Who do you think was able to do something about the situation?” (Challenging the children to think.)

“Charlie!” (Because of his abilities he is the one who offers hope.)

“With his extra sharp vision, this special ability...” (Vague to widen the scope. Also, Robert has special abilities.)

“...he was able to spot some carrots far away. Happily he brought them home for all the family to eat”. (Given the opportunity, the bright child is happy to help the family through a tough time. He is a blessing in disguise. Now comes the intervention, or turning point. The metaphor suggests the Desired Outcome.)

“Now the rabbit family realised how silly they had been”. (The use of the Third Party approach can make an accusation quite palatable. The children are bound to get the message. Better still if you get them to agree: Yes, the rabbits WERE silly.)

“They made amends...” (Reconciliation. This could be the time to ask the children: What do you think the rabbits should do? Give Robert a present, offer an apology, or at least be kind to him in the future?)

“...and never called him Robbie the Smartie again.”

“After that experience they grew very fond of each other and so they were able to share their special interests and abilities”. (Implies that such a shift in attitude is possible and that the whole family will enjoy the experience is paired with good feelings.)

“And they found that the others in the family also had their special talents. One of the little rabbits had an extra fine sense of smell, another could run very fast and yet another drew nice pictures in the sand...” (This will encourage Susanne, Robert’s younger sister to acknowledge her special talents.)

“Then they also discovered how boring it would have been if all of them had the same knowledge and skills. They were happy that they all had their own different abilities...” (Reinforces the message from a different angle. Such repetitions are important for children.)

“... and so there were able to get to work and build the coziest barrow home you ever saw. And what’s more, they felt so good about it, they became the happiest family in the land.” (The metaphor suggests the final Desired Outcome: A positive shift in the fundamental attitude of all the children in the family. The last sentence deletes the word ‘rabbit’. Without the children being aware of it we lead the process back to the human situation.)

To summarise:
In the ‘covert’ metaphor (MP) we

Clarify the Desired Outcome – mutual acceptance and harmony.
Keep the purpose of the MP secret. It’s just another story.
Remove the content – e.g. our family.
Replace Family by something else – family of rabbits.
Use animals, other people of even things. – ‘third party’.
Transpose the PROCESS into the MP. – Envy and unhappiness.
Use keywords that are in common usage and describe the problem.
Keep the sequence of events intact. – Problem, process, outcome.
Suggest the Desired Outcome in the MP.
Create good feelings about the outcome achieved in the story.
Sometimes leave the MP open-ended. – Child finds solution.
Agree happily to tell the story again, and again... – repetition.
Choose the time to tell the story carefully. – Bedtime ideal.


Bandler, R. and Grinder, J. PATTERNS OF THE HYPNOTIC TECHNIQUES OF MILTON H. ERICKSON M.D. Cupertino, Cal. U.S.A. Meta Publications 1975.

Cleveland, B.F. MASTER TEACHING TECHNIQUES, 4th Edition. Stone Nountain, GA. U.S.A. The Connecting Link Press 1987.

Fergusen, M. THE AQUARIAN CONSPIRACY. London. Granada Publishing Ltd. 1982

Gordon, D. THERAPEUTIC METAPHORS. Cupertino, Cal. U.S.A. Meta Publications 1978.

Gordon, W.J. MAKING IT STRANGE, Books I to IV. New York, N.Y. Harper & Rowe 1969.

Gordon, W.J. THE METAPHORIC WAY OF LEARNING AND KNOWING. Cambridge, Mass. Porpoise Books 1973.

Jensen, E.P. SUPER TEACHING. Iowa, U.S.A. Kendall Hunt 1988.

Lankton, S.R. PRACTICAL MAGIC. Cupertino, Cal. U.S.A. Meta Publications 1980.

Pearce, J.C. MAGICAL CHILD MATURES. New York, N.Y. Banton Books 1986.

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Copyright : 1995 Peter Schmedding, Canberra, Australia.
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