‘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?

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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

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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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Today was an ending and a beginning. My darling girl finished year 12. The final year at school is tough enough, but this year was seismic. Our teens have moved through this year with the most outstanding courage and grace and strength, and now it is time for them to rest and play. My gosh they deserve it. 

It is true that this is a time of celebration, but it can also be an intense time of self-reflection for our teens. (I can remember the same feelings when my gorgeous boy finished so many years ago!) My daughter has described it as, ‘I feel as though I’ve outgrown myself but my new self isn’t ready yet.’ This just makes so much sense. 

There is a beautifully fertile void that is waiting for whatever comes next for each of them, but that void is still a void. At different times it might feel exciting, overwhelming, or brutal in its emptiness.

We also have to remember that this is a time of letting go, and there might be grief that comes with that. Before they can grab on to their next big adventure, they have to let go of the guard rails. This means gently adjusting their hold on the world they have known for the last 12+ years, with its places and routines and people that have felt like home on so many days. There will be redirects and shiftings, and through it all the things that need to stay will stay, and the things that need to adjust will adjust. 

To my darling girl, your loved incredible friends, and the teens who make our world what it is - you are the beautiful  thinkers, the big feelers, the creators, the change makers, and the ones who will craft and grow a better world. However you might feel now, the lights are waiting to shine for you and because of you. The world beyond school is opening its arms to you. That opening might happen quickly, or gently, or smoothly or chaotically, but it will happen. This world needs every one of you - your voices, your spirits, your fire, your softness, your strength and your power. You are world-ready, and we are so glad you are here xxx
When our kids or teens are in high emotion, their words might sound anxious, angry, inconsolable, jealous, defiant. As messy as the words might be, they have a good reason for being there. Big feelings surge as a way to influence the environment to meet a need. Of course, sometimes the fallout from this can be nuclear.
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Wherever there is a big emotion, there will always be an important need behind it - safety, comfort, attention, food, rest, connection. The need will always be valid, even if the way they’re going about meeting it is a little rough. As with so many difficult parenting moments, there will be gold in the middle of the mess if we know where to look. 
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There will be times for shaping the behaviour into a healthier response, but in the middle of a big feeling is not one of those times. Big feelings are NOT a sign of dysfunction, bad kids or bad parenting. They are a part of being human, and they bring rich opportunities for wisdom, learning and growth. .
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Parenting isn’t about stopping the emotional storms, but about moving through the storm and reaching the other side in a way that preserves the opportunity for our kids and teens to learn and grow from the experience - and they will always learn best from experience. 
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To calm a big feeling, name what you see, ‘I can see you’re disappointed. I know how much you wanted that’, or, ‘I can see this feels big for you,’ or, ‘You’re angry at me about .. aren’t you. I understand that. I would be mad too if I had to […],’ or ‘It sounds like today has been a really hard day.’ 
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When we connect with the emotion, we help soothe the nervous system. The emotion has done its job, found support, and can start to ease. 
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When they ‘let go’ they’re letting us in on their deepest and most honest emotional selves. We don’t need to change that. What we need to do is meet them where they and gently guide them from there. When they feel seen and understood, their trust in us and their connection to us will deepen, opening the way for our influence.
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When they are at that line, deciding whether to retreat to safety or move forward into brave, there will be a part of them that will know they have what it takes to be brave. It might be pale, or quiet, or a little tumbled by the noise from anxiety, but it will be there. And it will be magical. Our job as their flight crew is to clear the way for this magical part of them to rise. ‘I can see this feels scary for you - and I know you can do this.’ 
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When our kids or teens are struggling, it can be hard to know what they need. It can also be hard for them to say. It can be this way for all of us - we don't always know what we need from the people around us. It might be space, or distraction, or silence, or maybe acknowledging and being there is enough. Sometimes we might need to know that the people we love aren't taking our need for space, or our confusion or anger or sadness personally, and that they are still there within reach.
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What can be easier is thinking about what other people might need. Asking this when they are calm can invite a different perspective and can give you some insight into what they need to hear when they are going through similar. Don't worry if you just get a shrug, or a disheartened, 'I don't know'. They don't need to know, and neither do we. The question in itself might be enough to open a new way through any sense of 'stuckness' or helplessness they might be feeling.
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Give them space to talk but you don’t need to fix anything. You’ll want to, but the answers are in them, not us. Sometimes the answer will be to feel it out, or push for change, or feel the futility of it all so the feeling can let go, knowing it’s done it’s job - it’s recruited support, or raised awareness that something isn’t right.

Sometimes the feelings might be seismic but the words might be gone for a while. That’s okay too. Do they want to start with whatever words are there? Or talk about something else? Or go for a walk with you? Watch a movie with you? Or do a spontaneous, unnecessary drive thru with you just because you can - no words, no need to explain - just you and them and car music for the next 20 minutes. 

The more you can validate what they’re feeling (maybe, ‘Today was big for you wasn’t it’) and give them space to feel, the more they can feel the feeling, understand the need that’s fuelling it, and experiment with ways to deal with it. Sometimes, ‘dealing with it’ might mean acknowledging that there is something that feels big or important and a little out of reach right now, and feeling the fullness and futility of that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days are rubbish, and that sometimes those days 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.

I wish our kids never felt pain, but we don’t get to decide that. We don’t get to decide how our children grow, but we do get to decide how much space and support we give them for this growth. We can love them through it but we can’t love them out of it. I wish we could but we can’t.

So instead of feeling the need to silence their pain, make space for it. In the end we have no choice. Sometimes all the love in the world won’t be enough to put the wrong things right, but it can help them feel held while they move through the pain enough to find their out breath, and the strength that comes with that.♥️

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