These memories are more powerful than you think -- for everyone.
I was skimming, and didn’t have a chance to get into the meat of it before I had to shut down the computer, but it was a piece by Elaine Reese, “what kids learn from hearing family stories.” Later that day, I was trying to keep my 3-year-old awake in the car when I remembered the headline. Telling memories seemed like less work than making up a new story, so I started telling him how I felt when we got our first dog — and he was riveted.
By the end of the ride, I felt like I’d stumbled on the world’s best kept secret. These straightforward childhood memories make more than just easy stories to tell — they’re good for the whole family in a way I never expected.
Going back to the article later, I wasn’t surprised by the impressive list of ways this simple habit makes a difference. Reese cites a study that found that when a child knows about his family’s history, he has a stronger ”internal locus of control, higher self-esteem, better family functioning, greater family cohesiveness, lower levels of anxiety, and lower incidence of behavior problems.”
When researchers taught mothershow to tell stories about their childhood, reminding them to emphasize the emotions they felt, provide vivid details, and let the memories guide a conversation between parent and child, the children’s emotional intelligence skyrocketed.
Reese writes, “Children of the parents who learned new ways to reminisce also demonstrate better understanding of other people’s thoughts and emotions. … In the preteen years, children whose families collaboratively discuss everyday events and family history more often have higher self-esteem and stronger self-concepts. And adolescents with a stronger knowledge of family history have more robust identities, better coping skills, and lower rates of depression and anxiety. Family storytelling can help a child grow into a teen who feels connected to the important people in her life.”
We’re not talking about flooding your kids with stories of your past trauma or anything, just the ordinary memories. What you did for Halloween when you were in middle school, that time you got in trouble for painting the wall, what you were great at … memories of whatever was important to you when it was current, that’s all.
These memories are more powerful than they seem. I was telling my son about the time my big brother and I went to the neighbor’s abandoned, overgrown yard to catch grasshoppers. My brother, I remembered, got so good he could catch them one-handed! I was jealous, and very impressed; I needed both hands. I remembered their big black eyes, and the little click they made as they jumped off the palm of my hand.
It brought back more than just the memory of that summer. For me, it brought back that whole mindset a child has, where a something that an adult thinks is no big deal is actually the biggest deal there is. I made a mental note to remember that, next time my son wants to tie his shoes all by himself.
It’s not just me that it made an impression on, though. A child is so centered in his own world that he doesn’t always remember that other people are human too, with all the ordinary ups and downs that he is so familiar with. Stories of my girlhood remind him that even though I’m all grown up, I’m still pretty similar to him.
Since these stories are real, and they’re driven by detail and emotion, (in my grasshopper story, excitement, jealousy, and pride of accomplishment) rather than complicated plot points, they’re fertile ground for developing emotional intelligence. Mindfulness and acceptance of emotions too, since the point of the story isn’t what I should have felt, but what I did feel.
Plus, they’re easy to tell. God knows I have plenty of material, and it’s a whole lot more interesting and less exhausting than making up one more adventure story. When you’re little, little things are adventures too.
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