“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” ―Muriel Rukeyser, American poet and political activist
When was the last time you shared a story with your children from your life before you became a parent? Do they even know you had a life before them?
There are two broad reasons to share personal and family stories with your children. The first is to preserve and pass down tradition, heritage, and culture. The second is to break free from all three at whichever point societal and family norms, values, and beliefs need to evolve.
However you approach it, the stories you carry hold immense potential for building a strong sense of belonging and connection with and within your child. And they can help them not repeat lessons you’ve already learned and trials you’ve managed to overcome. As the Greek proverb goes, “The fox is 100 years old. Its child is 110” — but only if there are willing storytellers in the family.
Figuring Out Which Stories to Share
Sharing a family story doesn’t have to be backed with solid reasoning. Some of the most memorable stories are the ones shared spontaneously. And yet, explaining your position on feminism to your daughter through sharing an experience you had at their age is an effective way to build a bond and foster mutual understanding.
For many of us, storytelling doesn’t come naturally, and if that’s the case for you, it’s worth contemplating why?
If you didn’t grow up with the elders around you sharing stories, it’s perhaps not a natural inclination. Also, sharing a personal story can feel risky, even or especially with your children. It can be exposing and vulnerable and will impact how you’re perceived.
Yet, these are the reasons to lean in and try because vulnerability, personal sharing, and trust foster emotional connection.
Start where you are willing, sharing small anecdotes complimenting everyday experiences like dinner together or planning a weekend outing.
If there’s something specific you need to address with your child, consider if there’s a way to foster connection and understanding through a relevant story from your life or your family lineage.
For example, sharing how your bold grandmother chose to handle the schoolyard bully in her youth may help your child see how speaking up for themselves is not only okay and important but effective and necessary.
Five Ways Storytelling Improves Your Parenting
Studies show that people are often more likely to be persuaded and remember what you say if you share a story.
Social psychologist, Jennifer Aakar, explains, “When data and story are used together, audiences are moved both intellectually and emotionally. When telling a story, you take the listener on a journey, moving them from one perspective to another. In this way, a story is a powerful tool for engendering confidence in you and your vision.”
Whether that vision revolves around household chores, getting your child to sleep on time, or raising a confident woman, most people will confess that the idea of a shared parent-child vision feels deeply relieving.
If you need more convincing, here are five ways storytelling supports your parenting:
Persuasion and action: Aaker shares that stories are remembered up to 22 times more than facts alone. Consider that a simple request framed in a compelling story is a lot more likely to get the desired response from your child.
‘Show don’t tell’: As a parent, this can be a secret tool. Nobody likes being told what to do. Illustrating your reasons, intentions, and desires through a story can convey the same message more effectively.
“Have I ever shown you these photos of when I fell off my bike and hit my head? I was concussed and in so much pain. I feel so much fear when you ride off without your helmet because I’ve experienced what can happen.”
Foster emotional connection: Personal stories inherently contain emotion. Sharing your experience through what you felt at the time opens the door for a deeper connection because you’re revealing your humanness. This deeper sharing also helps your children spot similarities with you in how they relate to your experience.
Normalize experiences: Feeling shy, uncertain, and out of control. Being bullied or bullying, being left out or bossed around, getting your first period, or being the artistic child in a peer group of athletes. Share what you experienced at your child’s age and beyond. Doing so is a powerful way to resource them, show them they have options, or that there’s a better path available because you found it and it worked out. (Or, maybe you didn’t find it, and you can prevent them from repeating your experience.)
Inspire and pave the way: Be the shoulders your children stand on. You have the ability to put them ahead on the path relative to your experience at their age. Share about standing up for yourself at work, and what it was like growing up a particular race or gender in your generation. What did you stand for? When did you find your voice? Are you still working on finding your voice? Let your trials, victories, grief, and evolution become their education, permission, comfort, and contemplation.
Templates And Ideas For Compelling Story Sharing
According to Aaker, there are four characteristics of a compelling story:
1. Goal: Why are you telling this story?
2. Grab attention: Why would your family/children want to listen?
3. Engage: Why would your family/children care about your story?
4. Enable action: Why would they want to remember or share your story?
Beyond weaving storytelling into daily life, the three options below allow for deeper and more thorough inquiry, story sharing, collection, and preservation:
1. The games night: A regular games night with family-created questions that invite depth, tease out unknown stories and encourage vulnerability is a fun way to explore personal and family stories and foster deeper levels of connection. Use these prompts to get started:
- A dream I’ve never shared
- A rule I secretly love to break
- A time in my life I stood up for myself
- My favorite childhood vacation
- If I could change one thing about society
2. The interview: Arranging casual family interviews is a fun way to connect and learn about each other. Rather than a once-off, consider multiple, short, themed interviews:
- Pets throughout my life
- Music, bands, concerts
- Childhood books
3. The record: Document family stories online or in a book (or any other way)
Gathering photos, letters, art, recipes, sheet music, etc., and building a family book can be a connecting experience while preserving your family’s history.
Considering that every single person contains a lifetime of stories, it’s hard not to feel both awe and agreement at Muriel Rukeyser’s statement, “the universe is made up of stories, not atoms.”
Stories matter, and yours matter to the well-being of your children. What transformative tale will you share tonight?
Written by Roxana Bouwer
Top photo by Suzy Hazelwood for pexels
Second image by Arina Krasnikova for pexels
Third image by cottonbro studio for pexels