‘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

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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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.

Reply
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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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. “

Reply
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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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.

Reply
Kate

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

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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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Physical activity is the natural end to the fight or flight response (which is where the physical feelings of an anxiety attack come from). Walking will help to burn the adrenalin and neurochemicals that have surged the body to prepare it for flight or fight, and which are causing the physical symptoms (racy heart, feeling sick, sweaty, short breaths, dry mouth, trembly or tense in the limbs etc). As well as this, the rhythm of walking will help to calm their anxious amygdala. Brains love rhythm, and walking is a way to give them this. 
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Try to help your young one access their steady breaths while walking, but it is very likely that they will only be able to do this if they’ve practised outside of an anxiety attack. During anxiety, the brain is too busy to try anything unfamiliar. Practising will help to create neural pathways that will make breathing an easier, more accessible response during anxiety. If they aren't able to access strong steady breaths, you might need to do it for them. This will be just as powerful - in the same way they can catch your anxiety, they will also be able to catch your calm. When you are able to assume a strong, calm, steady presence, this will clear the way for your brave ones to do the same.
The more your young one is able to verbalise what their anxiety feels like, the more capacity they will have to identify it, acknowledge it and act more deliberately in response to it. With this level of self-awareness comes an increased ability to manage the feeling when it happens, and less likelihood that the anxiety will hijack their behaviour. 

Now - let’s give their awareness some muscle. If they are experts at what their anxiety feels like, they are also experts at what it takes to be brave. They’ve felt anxiety and they’ve moved through it, maybe not every time - none of us do it every time - maybe not even most times, but enough times to know what it takes and how it feels when they do. Maybe it was that time they walked into school when everything in them was wanting to walk away. Maybe that time they went in for goal, or down the water slide, or did the presentation in front of the class. Maybe that time they spoke their own order at the restaurant, or did the driving test, or told you there would be alcohol at the party. Those times matter, because they show them they can move through anxiety towards brave. They might also taken for granted by your young one, or written off as not counting as brave - but they do count. They count for everything. They are evidence that they can do hard things, even when those things feel bigger than them. 

So let’s expand those times with them and for them. Let’s expand the wisdom that comes with that, and bring their brave into the light as well. ‘What helped you do that?’ ‘What was it like when you did?’ ‘I know everything in you wanted to walk away, but you didn’t. Being brave isn’t about doing things easily. It’s about doing those hard things even when they feel bigger than us. I see you doing that all the time. It doesn’t matter that you don’t do them every time -none of us are brave every time- but you have so much courage in you my love, even when anxiety is making you feel otherwise.’

Let them also know that you feel like this too sometimes. It will help them see that anxiety happens to all of us, and that even though it tells a deficiency story, it is just a story and one they can change the ending of.
During adolescence, our teens are more likely to pay attention to the positives of a situation over the negatives. This can be a great thing. The courage that comes from this will help them try new things, explore their independence, and learn the things they need to learn to be happy, healthy adults. But it can also land them in bucketloads of trouble. 

Here’s the thing. Our teens don’t want to do the wrong thing and they don’t want to go behind our backs, but they also don’t want to be controlled by us, or have any sense that we might be stifling their way towards independence. The cold truth of it all is that if they want something badly enough, and if they feel as though we are intruding or that we are making arbitrary decisions just because we can, or that we don’t get how important something is to them, they have the will, the smarts and the means to do it with or without or approval. 

So what do we do? Of course we don’t want to say ‘yes’ to everything, so our job becomes one of influence over control. To keep them as safe as we can, rather than saying ‘no’ (which they might ignore anyway) we want to engage their prefrontal cortex (thinking brain) so they can be more considered in their decision making. 

Our teens are very capable of making good decisions, but because the rational, logical, thinking prefrontal cortex won’t be fully online until their 20s (closer to 30 in boys), we need to wake it up and bring it to the decision party whenever we can. 

Do this by first softening the landing:
‘I can see how important this is for you. You really want to be with your friends. I absolutely get that.’
Then, gently bring that thinking brain to the table:
‘It sounds as though there’s so much to love in this for you. I don’t want to get in your way but I need to know you’ve thought about the risks and planned for them. What are some things that could go wrong?’
Then, we really make the prefrontal cortex kick up a gear by engaging its problem solving capacities:
‘What’s the plan if that happens.’
Remember, during adolescence we switch from managers to consultants. Assume a leadership presence, but in a way that is warm, loving, and collaborative.♥️
Big feelings and big behaviour are a call for us to come closer. They won’t always feel like that, but they are. Not ‘closer’ in an intrusive ‘I need you to stop this’ way, but closer in a ‘I’ve got you, I can handle all of you’ kind of way - no judgement, no need for you to be different - I’m just going to make space for this feeling to find its way through. 

Our kids and teens are no different to us. When we have feelings that fill us to overloaded, the last thing we need is someone telling us that it’s not the way to behave, or to calm down, or that we’re unbearable when we’re like this. Nup. What we need, and what they need, is a safe place to find our out breath, to let the energy connected to that feeling move through us and out of us so we can rest. 
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But how? First, don’t take big feelings personally. They aren’t a reflection on you, your parenting, or your child. Big feelings have wisdom contained in them about what’s needed more, or less, or what feels intolerable right now. Sometimes it might be as basic as a sleep or food. Maybe more power, influence, independence, or connection with you. Maybe there’s too much stress and it’s hitting their ceiling and ricocheting off their edges. Like all wisdom, it doesn’t always find a gentle way through. That’s okay, that will come. Our kids can’t learn to manage big feelings, or respect the wisdom embodied in those big feelings if they don’t have experience with big feelings. 
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We also need to make sure we are responding to them in the moment, not a fear or an inherited ‘should’ of our own. These are the messages we swallowed whole at some point - ‘happy kids should never get sad or angry’, ‘kids should always behave,’ ‘I should be able to protect my kids from feeling bad,’ ‘big feelings are bad feelings’, ‘bad behaviour means bad kids, which means bad parents.’ All these shoulds are feisty show ponies that assume more ‘rightness’ than they deserve. They are usually historic, and when we really examine them, they’re also irrelevant.
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Finally, try not to let the symptoms of big feelings disrupt the connection. Then, when calm comes, we will have the influence we need for the conversations that matter.
"Be patient. We don’t know what we want to do or who we want to be. That feels really bad sometimes. Just keep reminding us that it’s okay that we don’t have it all figured out yet, and maybe remind yourself sometimes too."
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