‘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.

16 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

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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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