Is there a story about you that your family loves to tell that you wish would just go away?
Is it the one about how you peed in Uncle James’ eye as an infant?
Or the one about how you accidentally got something stuck up your nose?
Or maybe even the time you wanted to marry your kindergarten teacher.
Family stories are a powerful tool, and a way in which we bond through common shared history. The stories we tell can be inside jokes, shorthand messages of love, and a way of feeling connected and united as a group. As adults, we are the storekeepers of our children’s memories, and of their past, especially their infancy. In our roles as parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents, cousins, relatives and family friends, we come together through a shared narrative represented by these stories.
However, not all family stories are as benign as they might seem. Simply through longevity, adults are definitely privy to a much larger arsenal of stories to draw upon. Many adults use memory as a powerful weapon of shame, telling embarrassing childhood stories in front of a child’s friends and peers. And these stories continue to be told even when the child is an adult. The perpetual re-telling of some of these stories may leave us feeling trapped in a constant infancy by never letting us forget that they first saw us in diapers or when we were a “wee baby”.
How often have you fallen into the easy trap of regaling others with stories that might be embarrassing to the child or adult child it references? When asked why we tell these stories to the children, our first response may often be “Because that’s what I remember,” “Because I love you,” or “Because the thought just occurred to me”. If we look deeper about the meaning of these stories, we delight in telling these stories because they explain to us the length and depth of our connection to this child, and we want them to know it. We want to say “I love you more because of how long I know you and how far I’ve seen you come”. And THAT is truly a wonderful intention.
Intent Vs. Impact
The problem however, lies not in the intention, but in the impact. Children will often roll their eyes at these messages and how they are delivered, because what they experience is an adult who is taking a walk down memory lane at the expense of the child. They do not feel seen in this moment, they feel trapped in a past that they don’t remember. The stories can also evoke a sense of helplessness about not being able to change an outcome.
Most clients can remember
at least one embarrassing childhood story
that keep being retold at all family gatherings.
Having no recollection of these events except the innumerable times this story has been told, clients report a sense of helplessness each time they hear the story. They feel held hostage by a past they are sometimes too young to remember and often powerless to change. The story always elicits laughter from the rest of the family and guests who seem not to notice that that the client is never comfortable joining in. The individual watches with quiet resentment and sadness how easy it is for us adults to take the easy way out and tell a story with a punchline that everyone except one is guaranteed to laugh at, instead of making the effort to find a new feel-good story that includes all the parties.
Many of us can empathize with the story of an amnesiac who cannot remember their husband, children and family after a tragic accident. However, we do not feel the same empathy for a child who must repeatedly listen to stories about themselves that they cannot remember or which they relate to from a very different perspective. Being in the strong throes of building an identity, a child may feel thwarted in this fundamental drive, by an adult’s desire to relive history. What a child seeks most from an interested adult is attention: unconditional positive attention in the NOW. The need to relive the past is clearly the adult’s agenda unless the request comes from the child. And it is the adult’s power over the child that creates an unequal dynamic where the child who lives in the NOW is repeatedly subjected to not feeling seen in the NOW.
How often do we look at a child and say something like “My, how you’ve grown! I remember when… ” In one short phrase, we are walking ourselves back down memory lane while unfortunately making the child feel unseen in the now. How much more joy do you see in a child’s face when you acknowledge them in the present moment for who they are and ask about their current interests, likes and dislikes!
When I first became friends with Mona, I met her delightful 9 year old middle-schooler, Jeremy who has become an important part of my life since. A few months ago, I was surprised to realize that he had just acquired his learners permit. A part of me flinched at the thought of him driving – the very same part of me, that as an adult, regularly walks down memory lane. And in that moment, I made a choice to see him for who he is today. Overcoming my reluctance, I threw him the car keys before he had a chance to ask for them, and with a big smile, I said “I am so excited for you to drive me around because you have always had good judgment and driving is all about good judgment.”
These words encouraged Jeremy to prove me right with some exemplary driving skills. I set him up to succeed and he made every effort to do me proud. I could have followed my initial reluctance and waited until he asked for the car keys, and then reminded him of his middle school days and told him how scary it was for me to ride in the car driven by a 9 year old. Instead, I did us both proud by being in the NOW with him. I shared my power with him and it resulted in a powerful Win-Win situation.
Remembering our children as young, helpless and cute may elicit an endearing memory for us, but it may also be holding our children hostage to these memories. A more feel-good equitable activity may involve creating a new collaborative narrative together with the child or now-adult-child. The more we see our children as capable, the more they show us what they are truly capable of.
So how then do we let these stories die?
I’m not sure there is a simple answer, but perhaps we start with simply recognizing that:
- A walk down memory lane is an adult initiated, adult oriented activity unless initiated by a child.
- We need to recognize and address our own anxiety and loss of power in relation to the growth and maturity of a child.
- We must learn to be present in the now, and recognize the growth that is apparent without trying to return a child to an earlier stage.
- Now is the time for some of those stories to die, and for us to create new feel-good funny stories that include all parties.