Young children are wide-eyed in their curiosity about the lives of their parents.
For many years, I have advised parents to talk with their children about experiences in their own lives, especially when children are feeling worried, disappointed or sad. Personal stories are helpful, for example, when children are anxious about their first day at school or summer camp; or when they have suffered a painful rejection by a friend; or when there has been a death in the family.
Telling personal stories to children, and in the presence of children, is an important child-rearing practice in many cultures. Often, these are cautionary tales, of dangers to avoid (or of virtues to be admired).
I learned the value of telling personal stories when I was a young parent. Our daughter, Rachel, was not yet 3 years old when our son, Dan, was born. The baby slept in a bassinet in our bedroom for a few months until it was time for him to share a bedroom with his sister. Until now, Rachel had seemed pleased with her new role as a big sister, and she had expressed little jealousy of her baby brother. But this night, when going to bed, she told me, “I don’t want my baby brother sleeping in my room.”
This, I thought, would be any easy problem to solve, a piece of cake. I was, after all, a child psychologist, and this was Child Psych 101. I told Rachel that I could understand her feelings. We were able to give her less attention now than before the baby was born. And this room used to be her room; now, it was the children’s room. Rachel listened quietly to my sympathetic explanations and, when I had finished, she replied, “Well, that’s OK, but I still don’t want my baby brother sleeping in my room.”
Not knowing what else to do, I offered a personal story. “Let me tell you about when Daddy was a little boy and I slept in the same room with Uncle Bob and Uncle Steve.” Rachel’s eyes widened. To this point, she had listened with polite attention; now, she listened with rapt attention. I told her a (true) story about sharing a room with my brothers and she quickly fell asleep. Then, the following night and for several months thereafter, as I put her to bed, she asked, ”Tell me a story about when you were a little boy.”
I often have this conversation in mind when I offer advice to parents on helping children cope with the common anxieties and disappointments of growing up. Kids derive great benefit from knowing that we know how they feel – because we have also had these feelings.
We should let children know that we have also suffered frustrations and disappointments, and moments of embarrassment. We can then talk with them about how we have overcome our disappointments – and tell them we are confident that they will, too.
My experience with the benefits of telling personal stories has received some recent research support. Psychologists Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush, along with their colleagues at the Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life of Emory University, have demonstrated the importance of storytelling as a way of promoting resilience in school-age children. In several studies, children’s knowledge of their family history was strongly related to their general well-being and a positive sense of self. Children were asked, for example, “Do you know how your parents met?” and “Do you know where some of your grandparents grew up?”
In my experience, there is simply no better way, as a parent (or as a child therapist) to engage a young child’s attention and provide emotional support than through sharing personal stories. When children are feeling worried, disappointed or sad, our personal stories offer encouragement and hope.