Over the past few months, I have been pondering the power of personal narratives. It is inevitable that people will view events through the prism of their individual experiences. My minority friends read stories of black men killed by police and see them as a continuation of the nonlethal but frightening harassment they have experienced themselves. My other friends see themselves reflected in the stories of victims or police killed in action or small-business owners hurt by the resulting unrest. These competing narratives live in our emotions, and data and logic do not reach them easily.
Our foster or stepchildren come to us with built-in narratives. The story-telling impulse is embedded deeply in our brains and is an almost primal instinct. It is how children learn to make sense of the world from their earliest days. From fairy tales to Instagram, our stories are how we communicate deep ideas and emotions.
Unfortunately, the impulse to find a coherent story means that children may take the wrong lessons from the events in their lives. Foster children, for example, may decide that they are the villain in their story who will never have good things happen. Children of divorce may decide that lifelong relationships are as fantastical as unicorns and living happily ever after. Whatever their narrative, they will view everything that happens, including what we do or say, through that story.
So what do we do when our child’s narrative is negative and predicts disaster? We know from both experience, research, and what our grandmothers taught us that people with positive attitudes are more resilient and successful in life. But we cannot inject positivity into a child. All we can do is give them a safe space to change their narratives themselves.
Logic and Lectures Do Not Work
A child’s narrative lives in a part of the brain that logic cannot reach. No matter how eloquent we are — or how correct in our analysis — we cannot lecture our children into accepting a new story. At most, we can only help guide them.
That’s not to say that our words do not matter. But we have to keep our comments short and repeat them often. We also cannot convince them by praising their intrinsic qualities. Rather, we should praise their positive behavior, such as not giving up or pushing through disappointment. The old coach’s advice of “just walk it off” does not work for concussions, but it is good psychology.
Don’t Fight Our Roles
Many of our children will cast us as one of the characters in their narrative, even before they know us well. We may be a villain or a good character, depending on their experiences. Foster children may lump us with the case workers who control their lives. Stepchildren will have heard many stories of evil stepparents. I used to tell my stepsons that I had read all of the stepmother manuals — Cinderella, Snow White, and Hansel & Gretel. Fortunately, we had a good enough relationship that they understood the joke.
It does no good to complain about the stereotypes. Our best course is to ignore them (or joke about them) and quietly disprove them. We cannot control a child’s narrative. We can only be kind and loving no matter how our children view us. At least we can model the kind of behavior we want to see in them.
Help Them Succeed
Finally, we can best change their narrative by helping them find something where they can succeed. Some children are athletic while others are better in art or music. I love organizations such as Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts where children earn badges. The child not only learns skills but has something tangible to prove it. Those rewards can last a lifetime. The owner & cook of a charming B&B where we stayed once had framed his cooking merit badge from Boy Scouts and proudly hung it in the dining room. He said that merit badge had been the hardest one to earn, but it had launched him on a career as a chef. Children will not believe us when we tell them they can succeed; they will believe it when they start succeeding.
Helping children change their negative stories about themselves is never easy. It is not easy for us to change our own narratives. There are many, many techniques we can learn both for ourselves and our children. These three principles, however, are the best way to start.