Tuesday, October 02, 2018

When We Tell Our Honest Stories

When I was a younger parent, there were some "experts" who advised lying to your children. Not about everything, of course, but rather about certain mistakes you made in your own youth. For instance, you weren't supposed to admit to your own experimentation with drugs, alcohol, or sex, the fear being that by confessing you would increase the likelihood of them performing their own experiments. At the time I learned of this theory our daughter Josephine was still in diapers so I was a long way away from having to deal with such things. I stashed it away in one of the attics of my brain for when that time came.

Meanwhile, I muddled through as best I could, relying mostly on advice from my mother and mother in law. I found heartbreak to be the most difficult terrain. As a man in our culture, I'd unintentionally picked up the idea that it was my job to fix things when other people cried, an approach that rarely "worked" in the sense that it did little to sooth the heartbreak or stem the tears. The only thing that helped, I learned, was to simply sit with her, and listen. Then one day when she was about three or four, as she was tearfully re-telling a story of a friend who she felt she had treated badly, I was reminded of a dark story from my own childhood which I shared with her. She listened and, to my surprise, it seemed to calm her.

From that moment on, whenever she was heartbroken, afraid, or ashamed, I found myself searching my own history for moments when I had experienced something similar, or better, when I had felt what I imaged she was feeling and shared it with her, honestly, even when it made me look bad. Once she even said, "I like when you tell me your stories." 

When we feel strong emotions, there is a tendency for us to feel that we are all alone. This is especially true of young children. When we as parents share our own stories about failures, mistakes, and hurts, it lets our children see that there is light at the end of the tunnel, that the pain will pass, that they are not the only one to have ever suffered like this. When we tell our honest stories to our children, we are telling them, without lecturing, that this is what growth is all about.

This is especially important when part of why they are crying is our own "bad" behavior. If we've yelled at them, for instance, we must not only later apologize, but also let them know that we understand how scary that was because our own parents, grandma and grandpa, had made the mistake of yelling at us when we were little. Children often take comfort in knowing that their hurt is not theirs and theirs alone, but rather one that everyone, even parents and grandparents have experienced. And it's especially important to be honest about our mistakes.

When it came time to talk to Josephine about drugs, alcohol, and sex, my wife and I did not lie, but rather continued sharing the true stories from our own lives, stories that let our girl know that whatever happened, we were all in this together, through the highs and the lows, and that there would come a time when we had grown beyond the pain, leaving us with stories to tell the next person who needed to hear them.

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