“I wemembew one time, when we wived in Awgentina, and I was weawy wittle. I was in bed and all the wights went out, and I stawted cwying and cwying, and Mommy held me and gave me my bwankie. And it was weawy dawk, and the big kids thought it was so fun, but I was so scawed that I thwew up all over Mommy. And the kids laughed and laughed and said, ‘Lulu puked! Lulu puked!'”
Oh yeah, Mommy remembers that, too. Distinctly. It’s not one of Mommy’s favorite memories, though it is definitely one of theirs. It was a moment of drama washed over with the safety of two parents competently handling everything. It was a moment of shared excitement. It was the moment they learned what the word ‘puke’ means. Invaluable lesson, that.
The funny thing about that particular evening (because, contrary to what my kids tell you, the puke was NOT funny) is that Lucy was only just two years old. She doesn’t remember that. Seriously, she doesn’t remember it. She’s just been told about it so many times by the rest of the family that she thinks she does. We’ve actually implanted a memory in her brain. Now there’s something to think about.
It’s pretty universally agreed that humans are narrative beings. We see and interpret the world around us as a story. We just do. Neurologists take scans of our brains and tell us that stories activate our brains in a way that nothing else can. Leadership gurus stress the importance of narrative as a way of connecting and motivating others to change. Psychologists run studies and find that the stories we tell about ourselves are strongly correlated to the condition of our current lives.
Think about what this means for us as parents. Our kids, right now, every day are building the story of their lives. We know this. This is why we take them to sports practices and make sure they get their homework done and protect them from dangers and feed them vegetables and try hard not to yell too much and worry about their social adjustment. We want their story to be a good one, a happy one, a safe one, a story with as little baggage to it as possible.
But the story of your life isn’t just what has happened to you, a long sum of actions and events. Stories don’t work like that. Stories are selective. Stories have shape. They have beginnings, middles, and ends. They have arcs. They are broken up into chapters (or episodes). They have high points, low points, turning points. They leave the unimportant events out altogether.
The story of your life is no different. Where you perceive your story to have begun matters in what will happen in the middle and the end. How you define the arc or trajectory of your story makes a world of difference in how you are defined as a person. Some scenes are much, much more important than others. Some are resonant with emotion that stays with you forever. Some are pivotal in the whole direction of your life. Some fade into obscurity and are forgotten.
As parents, we not only play a big role in what actually happens to our kids, we are a crucial part of how they narrate it all. What stories are we telling them about their past? According to us, what role do they play in their present? Are they a character that is growing and developing and acting or one that is tossed around by their circumstances? Do we replay the happy memories over and over or do we dwell on the darker scenes? How important are the other characters in their stories?
I’m not suggesting that I know the best way to tell your kids’ stories or even that there is a best way. There are a million ways to tell a great story from the same basic facts. I personally choose to retell the stories that show how many people are in their lives loving them and supporting them, the ones about how many people showed up at the hospital to meet them and how excited we all were, because I want them to know they are never alone. I retell the funny stories, the ones where they make mistakes and I make mistakes as their mom, because I really want them to learn to laugh at themselves. I tell the stories of sad times, too, the ones where we have to say good-bye and things don’t turn out as we expect, because I want them to see how even those times brought about the wonder that is now.
I don’t know what stories you should tell or how you should tell them. I’m only suggesting that we be intentional as parents. Our kids ARE forming a narrative in their heads about their lives. What are we contributing to that?
One of the things I started to do a couple of years ago is to write a letter to my kids each year on their birthdays. I post them over on our family blog. (These days that’s just about the only time I do post over there.) As they are getting older, they read them when I post them, but mostly, I put them there for them to have later. This is one way I tell them how I see their story, and it’s fun even already to see how it is developing slowly over time.
We (and only we) have been there every day since the beginning. We remember their life from before they can. We have a treasure trove of material to choose from. What stories are we telling?