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Young children are wide-eyed in their curiosity about the lives of their parents.
As a child psychologist, I've advised parents to talk with their children about their own experiences, especially when kids are feeling worried, disappointed, or sad. Personal stories are helpful, for example, when children are anxious about their first day at school or summer camp, or when they have suffered a painful rejection by a friend, or when there has been a death in the family.
Telling personal stories to children--and even in the presence of children--is an important child-rearing practice in many cultures. Often, these are cautionary tales of dangers to avoid (or of virtues to be admired).
I learned the value of telling personal stories when our daughter, Rachel, was not yet 3 years old and our son, Dan, was born. The baby slept in a bassinet in our bedroom for a few months until it was time for him to share a room with his sister. Until then, Rachel had seemed pleased with her new role as a big sister, and she hadn't expressed much jealousy. But that night, when going to bed, she told me, "I don't want my baby brother sleeping in my room."
I thought this would be an easy problem to solve. It's pretty much Child Psych 101. I told Rachel that I could understand her feelings. We weren't able to give her as much attention now as we did before the baby was born. And this room used to be her room; now, it was the children's room. Rachel listened quietly to my sympathetic explanations and, when I had finished, she replied, "I still don't want my baby brother sleeping in my room."
Not knowing what else to do, I offered a personal story. "Let me tell you about when Daddy was a little boy and I slept in the same room with Uncle Bob and Uncle Steve." Rachel's eyes widened. To this point, she had listened with polite attention; now, she listened with rapt attention. I told her a true story about sharing a room with my brothers and she quickly fell asleep. Then, the following night and for several months thereafter, as I put her to bed, she'd say, "Tell me a story about when you were a little boy."
That's the conversation I often have in mind when I offer advice to parents on helping children cope with the common anxieties and disappointments of growing up. Kids derive great benefit from knowing that we know how they feel--because we have also had these feelings.
We should let children know that we have also suffered frustrations, disappointments, and embarrassment. We can then talk with them about how we have overcome all of it--and tell them we are confident that they will, too.
We can say, for example, "Yes, I know, it feels really bad when other kids won't let you play. I also felt bad and angry when those kinds of things happened to me." Many children respond to these statements with astonishment. "That happened to you!?" And, of course, it has.
My experience with the benefits of telling personal stories has received some recent research support. Psychologists Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush, Ph.D., along with their colleagues at Emory University's Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life, in Atlanta, have demonstrated the importance of storytelling as a way of promoting resilience in school-age children. In several studies, children's knowledge of their family history was strongly related to their general well-being and a positive sense of self. Children were asked, for example, "Do you know how your parents met?" and "Do you know where some of your grandparents grew up?"
In my experience, there is simply no better way as a parent (or as a child therapist) to engage a young child's attention and provide emotional support than through sharing personal stories. When children are feeling worried, disappointed, or sad, our personal stories offer encouragement and hope.
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