Tell me a fact and I’ll learn. Tell me a truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.
– Indian Proverb
Understanding who they are is one of the greatest tasks of childhood. Kids love trying on costumes pretending to be super heroes, local heroes (police officer, fireman, doctors), or beautiful princesses. Because they have not defined who they are, there are infinite possibilities. My college philosophy professor made certain that the question “Who am I?” was printed on every one of the 179 handouts he passed out over a semester. My thought as a 19 year old was “What’s this guy on and why is he still allowed in the classroom?” (Although the way he communicated that question may not have been the easiest to relate to, he was right.) The question remains critically important to ask and continually answer as a growing, developing, and ever-changing person.
At this very moment, E, my four year old is watching baby videos of himself trying to figure out who that cute, yet distant person was and how it relates to who he is today. He loves it when I tell the simplest stories about his babydom – how we came up with his name, what we said when we first saw his face, when and how he had his first bath, how he loved sleeping under the lights in the hospital since he was born jaundiced.
You as a parent provide keen insight into a child’s sense of self. The stories that we tell children about who they are – are not only believed but become a part of the stories they tell themselves over and over about who they are. “I am good with animals.” “I don’t have a very good math sense.” “I am strong.” “I am shy.” These are all ideas children may have about themselves that have come from what others have said about them. When children have specific stories about who they are, they work to reinforce those messages, whether negative or positive. We tell E often that he sees details others might miss. So he proves to us often that he posseses this unique skill by pointing out intricasies, like a small, camouflaged spider, everywhere we go to reinforce his competence in this area.
Telling children stories about themselves doesn’t have to be particularly complicated, elaborate or take much preparation and planning. Actually, it’s better that they be short and simple because first of all, you’ll be more game to do it and second, they’ll actually remember it. It must, however, be authentic (true) and specific. Kids of all ages can sense manipulation (from a mile away) so this is not a place to try and build an ability that is lacking by saying it’s already a unique skill. Also, generic praise or compliments such as, “You’re so great!” are difficult to quantify (What does that mean?) and nearly impossible to encourage and replicate (How might I be great in the future? There could be a million ways.)
Appropriate Ages: Any and all
Get started by telling your child stories about him or herself. Here are some simple starters:
When you were only ____ years old, you told me you wanted to be ___________. You showed me how __________ (strong, persistent, thoughtful, attentive – add descriptive words)___ you could be.
When you were a tiny baby, you didn’t know how to ________ so the first time you tried, you ________________________. We were so proud when you practiced until you could do it all by yourself.
The first trip we ever took as a family was to ___________. You were so excited that you _____________ ahead of time. On the trip, we did lots of fun things including ___________________. You were so brave when you tried ____________ for the first time.
I was so proud when your teacher in ______ grade told me how you __________when__________. That showed courage and persistence.
Extend the learning by bringing up your story at a time when the whole family is together like dinnertime. Then, (to promote family identity and connectedness) play pass the story. Have family members think of an instance when you had fun together. Go around the table and tell only one small piece of the story and pass it around so each person has an opportunity to add to the story. Be wary of comments that are sarcastic and make fun of the subject of the story. If a family member contributes that type of comment, be sure and refocus their comments. “This story is only about the good things that Ryan did.”
Seuss, R., & McKie, R. (1969). My book about me. NY: Random House Books for Young Readers.
Fill in and complete sentences about yourself in this book about your child. Because Dr. Seuss books are such classics, this one could be fun for preschoolers with writing help from parents all the way up through childhood. Pre-teens to teens may even enjoy the nostalgia and simplicity of it.
Kranz, L. (2004). (Rev. Ed.). All about me; A keepsake journal for kids. Lanham, MD: Cooper Square Publishing.
For ages 8 and up, this is a wonderful way to begin journal writing through fun questions that encourage kids to write about their thoughts and feelings.