As parents, we often want to protect our kids from the hard parts of our story. Sounds reasonable, right? Based on their ages, it can be appropriate to edit or leave out certain chapters.
But continually giving our kids the cleaned-up version of our past actually hurts our relationship and cheats our kids.
I realized that recently when I was having a latte with my oldest daughter. We aren’t that fancy; we were in my kitchen in sweatpants, and only one of us had brushed our teeth. We were talking about sharing family stories with our kids. She’s the mom of three kids under the age of five, and the oldest is becoming more interested in the lives of those around him. In the midst of chatting, I mentioned that one of her siblings didn’t know that I had a 2.69 GPA as an undergrad. Please don’t judge my GPA. I had a great time in college, and I graduated. That’s a win!
Turns out, she didn’t know my college GPA either. I know family stories are important, but the stories I’d shared with my kids had some big gaps. All my daughter remembered about my schooling was my near-perfect GPA in seminary, because that happened when she was in high school. So her view of my academic achievements was distorted and didn’t include some of my less than stellar semesters. The conversation made me reflect on the importance of sharing more of our stories with our kids.
This isn’t a new idea. It was documented thousands of years ago. As a long time follower of Jesus, I turn to the Bible for guidance. And as I read, it’s clear that we’re encouraged to pass on our “memories” to our kids and grandkids. The more I’m open to sharing not only the good times with my kids, but also the failures, the hard times, the embarrassing things—the more I’m reminded to tell them how God showed up in the midst of those challenges.
I don’t have to have my stuff together, because God’s goodness is really the heart of the story. Sharing openly and often with our kids has powerful benefits.
But watch out! Be careful never to forget what you yourself have seen. Do not let these memories escape from your mind as long as you live! And be sure to pass them on to your children and grandchildren. Never forget the day when you stood before the Lord your God at Mount Sinai, where he told me, “Summon the people before me, and I will personally instruct them.” Then they will learn to fear me as long as they live, and they will teach their children to fear me also. — Deuteronomy 4:9-10
We are a forgetful bunch. That’s why the Bible is so great at reminding us to “never forget.” It’s so easy to forget the ways God has blessed us. We forget how God brought us through hard times. In the midst of challenges, we forget how much fun we’ve had in the past. Stories help us remember. It helps our kids remember events in which they participated and parts of the story that happened before their birth but are still important parts of their family narrative.
Whether you believe in God or not, here are the benefits I’ve found of sitting down with our kids and sharing our stories:
- Sharing family stories bonds us: Kids are trying to figure out who they are. Knowing more about their family helps them establish their identity within the family. Stories help communicate family values and priorities, which help our kids make wise decisions in line with our family beliefs.
- Resilient kids know their family narrative: In the summer of 2001, Drs. Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush, psychologists on the faculty of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, conducted a study to test kids knowledge of their family members and family events that could only be known through stories, writings, or other indirect ways. Each child was asked 20 questions. The study showed that the more questions the kids answered correctly, or the more they knew about their family, the more resilient they were. So the resiliency of a kid was directly related to their knowledge of family history or the depth of family stories told to them.
- Knowing about their parents’ hard times helps kids get up after falling down. Realizing that their parents or other family members have also had bumps, craters, or academic struggles in their journey helps kids better understand that they also can get up after they fall or fail. They begin to realize that hard times often result in personal growth, make us stronger, and help us when they are confronted with similar situations or disappointments in the future. Knowing that their family members have bounced back after difficulties gives them the confidence that they can make it through hard times too.
- Sharing our past makes us seem less perfect and more accessible: Our kids didn’t know us when we were kids—duh. So they rewrite history. Often in the process of imagining our past, we are viewed as much more accomplished, more mature, and basically more perfect than we actually were or are. This can make our kids feel inadequate and cause them to believe that we are unable to relate to their own failures or disappointments. If married, most of our kids likely know at least part of the story of how their parents met and married. But do they know of the duds we dated along the way? Or the ones we thought were “the one” until they dumped us?
- Stories are easier to remember than lectures: Telling our kids they can do it when they are certain that they cannot isn’t helpful. Telling stories of when we experienced challenges and worked through it is more memorable and believable. Jesus did this when he told parables. He explained the reason why in Psalm 78: “For I will speak to you in a parable. I will teach you hidden lessons from our past—stories we have heard and known, stories our ancestors handed down to us. We will not hide these truths from our children; we will tell the next generation about the glorious deeds of the Lord, about his power and his mighty wonders.”
- Traditions are important: Traditions are a way of carrying on a family narrative and connect our kids to their bigger family. The Bible is full of traditions that were established to help us remember a part of the story. Traditions like baptism and communion help us not forget the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross for us and the miracle of his resurrection. They also connect us to our bigger family—God’s family.
Convinced sharing stories is a good idea but need help getting started? Here are some ideas:
- Check out the 20 questions HERE used by Duke and Fivush in their study. Take one of the questions and answer it for your kid(s).
- Tell your kids their birth story. For kids who came into your family after birth, this is even more important. Don’t just share the details, share the reactions of family and friends visiting for the first time. Share about your first family vacation and what they especially enjoyed.
- Tell stories of traditions you had in your family growing up and the history, if you know it, behind those traditions.
- I’m still a HUGE advocate for reading together, but instead of reading a book at bedtime, tell a story about a birthday party you remember as a kid or your best friend when you were your child’s age. Share stories of their grandparents and relatives.
- Ask your kids if they have any questions about a specific part of your past. Younger kids may be interested in your favorite toys or TV shows. Older kids may be interested in your friends, dates, or interests in school. If you typically use a few words, try adding some more bits of info.
So start sharing. As I’ve been writing this, I realized I don’t think I’ve ever told my kids the story of Uncle Warren and why he spent every family holiday in his car, parked in the front yard, pulled right up to the front porch. I’ll go share it now.
Process, journal or discuss the themes of this article - here's a few questions to get the ball rolling...
Do you enjoy sharing stories from your past or avoid it? Why? Shame loves to tell us we should hide our past, but digging into it creates space for God to heal and use even the worst parts for good. Journal about it or talk to friends as honestly as you can.
Whether you believe in God or not, we believe He’s done (and is doing) something intentional, specific, and powerful in you. Take a few minutes to think back on the themes of your life. Where have you seen protection, favor, or provision in unexpected ways? Where have you seen a breakthrough despite your failure? Make a list or think of a specific example that stands out most.
Think of something one of your kids is going through right now. Could be a struggle at school, something you keep butting heads over at home, or a fear they’re struggling to shake. Look back on your story and think of a time you can relate. Share it with them as vulnerably as you can this week. See what happens.
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