Recently, I've begun sharing pieces of my childhood -- no, more accurately, stories of my growing up -- with my kids. When my children, now 8 and 5, were very small, they loved to look at their baby books and hear stories of themselves as a baby and toddler, years that were more mine than theirs since I recalled them so vividly and they, more or less, not at all.
Recently, my mother sent a box of the last of her keepsakes of my own baby and toddlerhood. The children and I opened the box together. "See, this? This was my favorite lovey from when I was a tiny baby. There are photos of me as a newborn with this lovey," I told my girls, showing them a small, ancient, very much loved Winnie the Pooh toy. I handed it to them, and they touched it in wonder. My younger daughter marveled that once upon a time I had been a baby, but she related more to Pooh Bear as a lovey than to the idea of me as a baby. "Pooh Bear is the same size as my Monkey," she announced, surrendering the bear to her sister. "It's just the right size." My older daughter, though, grasped it fully. I could see her mind click, adding together the old photos she'd seen of me as a child with this tangible evidence of my long-past youth. "You were a little girl once, like me," she said, hesitating, then gaining confidence as the concept clicked in her mind. "Just a little girl. What did you do when you were a little girl? Did you like to climb trees, like me?"
And I began sharing stories of who I was as a child, things I did, what life was like. They were surprisingly interested.
I shifted from fond, halcyon reminiscences, though, when my older daughter came home upset one day, having trouble with a friend. I asked her to tell me everything that had happened, and as we sat together, my arm around her, I tried to think of how to help her make sense of it, and deal with it. I thought hard about what to say. The only thing I could think of was a story from when I was about her age, with a similar situation. So I told her about people from my childhood -- Michelle, Melissa, Karen, Jennifer -- and what happened one day that hurt my feelings. Then I told her about what I learned from it, later.
A part of her resisted believing it was the same thing or could work out, as I had experienced; I recalled that from youth, as well. But I could tell she was thinking about it. Later, she came to me while I was making dinner in the kitchen, "Mom, that day when you and your friends had the argument and Karen said mean things to you, you really made up and stayed friends?" she asked. "Yes," I assured her, "It really happened, and we stayed friends for a long time, even after I moved away."
Since then, I've found that sometimes, adding in a recollection to make a point to my kids can be very effective. I've told them fun stories, stories about good choices, stories about happy memories and good times. But perhaps more importantly, I've told them stories where I made a bad choice, such as the time I borrowed my friend Jennifer's Snoopy pen without asking and lost it, but was too afraid to tell her. I told them how horrible I felt watching her search for the pen, how ashamed I felt when she cried, not able to find it. "I wish I had asked, rather than taking," I told them one day, in a situation where the younger had once again taken a toy without permission from the older's room. "And I wish I had taken care. But mostly, I wish I had told my friend the truth and replaced her pen. I didn't make a good choice, nor was I a good friend to Jennifer in that moment, and the guilt made me feel terrible. I learned it's better to ask, not take, and it's much better to tell the truth and make up."
Sometimes, my storytelling (aka morality tales) have an immediate effect, such as in this case when my younger found the courage to admit to taking the toy, apologize for that, and return it. Sometimes, it remains a seed, ready to take root another time.
But in the end, the overall effect is great and lasting: my children see me as a person, who does understand, and has been there. So when they make mistakes, or can't figure out something, or are troubled by life events, they know they are not alone. Most of all, they understand that we all start not knowing and grow up learning. It helps them believe me when I say that we're all just learning people, and our characters never quite growing, even when we're adults.
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