‘Tell Me About When You Were Little’. Children and Storytelling – The Stories They Need to Hear

'Tell Me About When You Were Little'. Children and Storytelling - The Stories Your Children Want to Hear

Since the beginning of our time, we humans have told stories. We love hearing them and we love telling them. At the centre of our stories beats the heart of our shared humanity – the potential of us, the vulnerability of us, the fragility, strength and heroism of us. When we share our stories, we become a witness to the lessons, the adventures and the impact of our own lives. We teach, we learn and we make sense of our experiences.

For your children, your stories will unfold a beautiful and personal expansion of their world. You are the most important, most intriguing, most influential person in their lives. They want to know everything about you. They want to know about the person you were when you were little, the life you lived before them, the mistakes you’ve made, the adventures you’ve had, the risks you’ve taken, the people you’ve loved and the fights you’ve fought.

As they get older and move towards their teenage years, they will be looking for the stories you tell that make it safe for them to tell you their own. They will be looking for the stories that help to make sense of their own stumbles, confusion, messiness or chaos. You’ve been where they are before, and even though you would have done it differently, it’s very likely that you made the same mistakes, had the same fears, and wondered about the answers to the same questions. Within your stories is the information that can soothe them, lift them and encourage them. They can learn things from you that they can’t learn from anyone else on the planet.

More than anything else in the world, whatever their age, they want to hear the stories that let them see themselves through your eyes. Never will they feel more loved, more wanted, more extraordinary, braver, stronger and more able to reach full flight, than they will when they look at themselves through the eyes of someone who loves them the way you do.

Children and storytelling. The ones they’ll love you to tell.

The stories that already exist inside you have an extraordinary capacity to guide them and  and widen their world. Here are some of the stories they will want to hear.

The way the world was when you were little.

With every generation, the detail of the world changes but the themes tend to stay the same – families, relationships, friendships, fears, hope, fun. The way you experience these things might be different from the way your children will, but when you tell them the stories, there will be common threads. The most important parts of the human experience don’t change that much from generation to generation. We will be brought undone by the same things our parents and grandparents were, and the same things will still be important. Generally, it revolves around our hopes and fears and who we open our hearts to. What was important in your family? What trouble did you get into? What did you do for fun? What were some of the important rules in your family? How were the rules different to the ones in the family your child is growing up in? How was play different? What was the best thing about your childhood? What wasn’t so great? How was day to day life different? What were you good at? What did you want to be good at? What are some funny memories? What did you want to be when you grew up? Why? What did you do for the holidays? What were some family rituals? What was bedtime like for you? What was your favourite story?

Your misadventures. 

Kids, especially younger ones, see us as responsible, unbreakable, hardworking, compromising – you know how it goes. Of course they see us tired and cranky and chaotic too, but they will also see us as solid and sorted, at least when they are young. By telling your stories of misadventure, you are laying the path for them to tell you about theirs. You are making yourself approachable, and you’re letting them know it’s okay to stumble sometimes. By hearing about your mistakes, your vulnerabilities and your woolly decisions, they will be able to trust that you’ll ‘get it’ when they slip up too – which they will, you know they will.

The places you’ve seen and the things you’ve done.

It might not even have occurred to your little person that you have had a life outside of storybooks, bathtime and bedtime. For them, you have always existed as someone in relation to them.It will fascinate them to hear about the different things you did before you became the most important person in the world. 

The story of how you met their other parent.

The day you met their other parent was the day your child became a possibility. It’s the story of their beginning and they will love every detail. Where did you meet? How did you meet? How did you feel? What was it that made you want to get closer? What were you wearing? Kids love hearing about the world that existed before them. Whether you are still in love, or whether you have never actually been in love doesn’t matter. What’s important is that in this whole world of people, you found that one that would make your little person possible. Now, if that doesn’t show them how much the world needs them. 

The day you found out about them.

Whether it was the day you found out about the pregnancy, the adoption, or that there was someone important who needed a family, they will love hearing about the moment your world started to change because of them.  

The day they were born.

Tell the story of the day they arrived and turned your world upside down and right way up. Talk to them about the conversations, the feelings, the anticipation, the weather that day, the phone calls, the visitors, the people who helped them into the world, the big news of that day, and what happened the moment you first saw them, touched them or held them. They will love hearing about what a big deal their entrance was, and how many people, places and things had to be organised to make sure they made it.

Their firsts – steps, words, tantrums.

They will love hearing how a single step or a one-syllable word made your day, or how a fully charged tantrum in public almost broke it. 

Your own firsts – first day at school, first job, first relationship, first day out of home. 

Because once upon a time there were big beginnings for you too. 

Your clearest memories of them – the good, the bad, and the shockers.

Tell them the stories of the detail of their lives they may not remember.  Children and teens will nurture strong feelings in us every day. Sometimes those feelings will be glorious, sometimes warm and sometimes they will make us tilt with pride. Sometimes those feelings will be forgettable – fury, bewilderment, chaos. It takes all feelings to make a life. The times they pressed against your patience the most are the stories that will be gold one day. Within every struggle you have had with them, there will be ribbons of their personality that you will be proud of, whether it’s their strong will, their sense of adventure, their curiosity, their ‘keen sense of justice’, tenacity, or their capacity to argue the legs of a chair when they believe in something enough.

And finally …

Your own stories will teach them the lessons, in the incidental, beautiful way that only stories can do. Let them be wide-eyed and curious and explore a different side of you, themselves, and your relationship with them.

15 Comments

John

I am somewhat selective to what stories I tell my teenage girl and boy. I was told by a co-worker of mine, “don’t tell them the bad stuff or rule breaking that you may have done, your kids may want to outdo you”. He believed that is what spurned his boys bad behavior…. Thoughts?

Reply
Karen - Hey Sigmund

It’s always important to be careful with what we share. It depends on their age and the type of kids they are. Nobody knows your child like you do. One of the best ways to teach kids important lessons is through stories. They will learn the lesson quicker through the stories and lessons we share with them than through preaching or lecturing.

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Kate

Love this article, so many great ideas to tell your own life story to your children, thank you!

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Sara

These are great ideas for grandparents, aunts, and uncles too! My oldest granddaughter loves to hear stories about when her mom was little. Lovely post.

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Mary A

thanks for the great article. It is wonderful to provide these details to your children’s understanding of you. It is even more beneficial for surviving parents to tell these stories about a deceased parent. These details fatten up the children’s memories and provides more threads of connection to their deceased parent. Sadly their time together with their parent who died was cut short so its great to add some memories and details even if they are once removed Another great story is “How we picked your name. “

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Hey Sigmund

Thanks Mary. This is so true and beautifully said. And I love your story idea – ‘How we picked your name’ – another great story for them to hear.

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Jo

Your articles always make me smile. Showing kindness to others is the best medicine for living a happy life. I wish I could bottle your wisdom and then fly around like a fairy in a children’s storybook and sprinkle a little on everyone….

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LaTwana

I so remember asking my mother these questions. Or even being in turned when she talked about the past.

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Hey Sigmund

Same! Even all these years later I still have such clear memories of the stories my parents told me, and how ‘alive’ they were when they told them.

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Meg

Thank you Karen, this piece reminds me of a simple, fun way to connect with my kids. I love your suggestions and can’t wait to share with my kids. Thank you x

Reply
Hey Sigmund

Thanks Meg. It’s so often the simplest things that they love isn’t it, and anything that gives them special time with you x

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For way too long, there’s been an idea that discipline has to make kids feel bad if it’s going to steer them away from bad choices. But my gosh we’ve been so wrong. 

The idea is a hangover from behaviourism, which built its ideas on studies done with animals. When they made animals scared of something, the animal stopped being drawn to that thing. It’s where the idea of punishment comes from - if we punish kids, they’ll feel scared or bad, and they’ll stop doing that thing. Sounds reasonable - except children aren’t animals. 

The big difference is that children have a frontal cortex (thinking brain) which animals and other mammals don’t have. 

All mammals have a feeling brain so they, like us, feel sad, scared, happy - but unlike us, they don’t feel shame. The reason animals stop doing things that make them feel bad is because on a primitive, instinctive level, that thing becomes associated with pain - so they stay away. There’s no deliberate decision making there. It’s raw instinct. 

With a thinking brain though, comes incredibly sophisticated capacities for complex emotions (shame), thinking about the past (learning, regret, guilt), the future (planning, anxiety), and developing theories about why things happen. When children are shamed, their theories can too easily build around ‘I get into trouble because I’m bad.’ 

Children don’t need to feel bad to do better. They do better when they know better, and when they feel calm and safe enough in their bodies to access their thinking brain. 

For this, they need our influence, but we won’t have that if they are in deep shame. Shame drives an internal collapse - a withdrawal from themselves, the world and us. For sure it might look like compliance, which is why the heady seduction with its powers - but we lose influence. We can’t teach them ways to do better when they are thinking the thing that has to change is who they are. They can change what they do - they can’t change who they are. 

Teaching (‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put this right?’) and modelling rather than punishing or shaming, is the best way to grow beautiful little humans into beautiful big ones.

#parenting
Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. 

But the learning comes from experience. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting

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