In my work as a psychologist with adults in therapy, I am reminded time and time again of the importance of our inner dialogue, the stories we tell about ourselves. The way we think and talk about ourselves not only reflects who we are, but also defines, reinforces and shapes who we become. The power of these stories can move us in one direction or another and can quite literally change the course of our lives. Our identity is intimately intertwined with the stories we choose to focus on.
How much can these stories really change who we are? It’s a question of Nature versus Nurture: While there is ongoing discussion about the weight and importance of one versus the other, it is clear that both are at play in our developing selves. How is the book of our life written? Genetics, predisposition, temperament are the paper, the binding, the cover. Experiences, thoughts, and beliefs are the words, the sentences, the paragraphs. The story we become would not exist without both. The self-view and beliefs about ourselves and the world are innately part of our person, our own individual book.
So where do those beliefs come from? Children are constant absorbers of data, of information about how the world works and how they relate to that world. In short, they collect stories. The power of this becomes clear when we consider the fact that we are, essentially, the storytellers for our children. When we talk about them, they listen. When we make defining statements about them, they believe us. They incorporate the information into their belief system about themselves and then act accordingly.
The other day, I heard my son tell someone, “I would rather ride bikes than anything else in the world.” Admittedly, this is a fairly benign statement in and of itself. But what impacted me the most was that I had said that about him. Word for word. I was talking on the phone to a friend and hadn’t even realized he was listening. He absorbed it. It may or may not have been true before I said it, but now, it seems, he is beginning to incorporate it into his understanding of himself. My simple statement to a friend shaped his understanding of his identity.
But what if the statement weren’t so benign? How many of us say things like:
“He is such a picky eater.”
“She has trouble with aggression.”
“Math is not his strong suit.”
“She is shy.”
All these statements are global and finite. They send the child the message that this is a true and stable fact. A true story. As a child starts to incorporate this view of herself, she will act accordingly.
But what if, instead, we said this?
“Today he didn’t feel like eating broccoli.”
“She was having strong feelings and didn’t know what to do with them.”
“He is working really hard to figure out math. It’s hard right now.”
“Today at the playground, she was feeling nervous with the other kids.”
All these statements reflect what the child may be feeling or experiencing in the moment, without attributing it to a global trait. There is room for the child to change or grow or do things differently next time. There is room for the child to experiment with different stories and, in the long run, find the ending that is right for her.
The stories we tell about our children not only impact how they act, but can also profoundly impact how we treat them. It’s a self-reinforcing cycle. If a parent believes his child is a picky eater, he may worry and stress and make comments about a child’s eating. The parent may offer or restrict certain types of foods. The child is busy collecting information about this, incorporating it and acting accordingly until, in the end, the child refuses to eat certain foods and grows to believe she just doesn’t like them. It’s the chicken and the egg. Maybe the child really didn’t like them, maybe it was just a phase, maybe it was just a fluke. There is no way to know because, in the end, the story has been told.
Letting a child’s story unfold naturally may be one of the hardest things to do. Maybe, in the end, it is impossible to completely avoid shaping their stories with our perceptions and beliefs. But being aware of the profound impact we are having on a child when we label, diagnosis, or otherwise define a behavior can change the way we think and talk about our children. Our children are ever-changing, growing, developing, thriving beings. They are learning about themselves and the world. Sure, they have temperaments and proclivities and natural strengths and weaknesses, the structure of their book. But there are also infinite ways the words can arrange themselves on the page. Uncountable ways their story can come to fruition. To declare that we “know” the ultimate truth about their journey is to sell them short.
So I challenge you to become aware of the stories you tell about—and to—your children. What kinds of things do you say that may be defining their path? And how might the stories you tell be impacting their behavior? Here are some things to practice:
1) Become aware of times when you are talking about your children when they are not around. Listen to yourself. Are the stories respectful, accurate, loving? Do they leave space for growth? We all need to vent sometimes, but the way we talk about our children in their absence can definitely color the way we interact with them later on.
2) Become aware of times when you are talking about your children when they are around, even if you think they aren’t listening. Assume they are listening. (They probably are.)
3) Become aware of times when you are talking about your children when they are actually listening. Change the way you do this. Include them in the conversation. Ask their permission to tell a story. Maybe they want to tell it themselves. Maybe they don’t want it told at all. Realize that not all stories are yours to tell just because you are bigger.
4) Become aware of the language you use in talking to your children about their behaviors. Does your language suggest a global and permanent truth about them (“You are a picky eater”)? Can you change this language to reflect what is happening in the moment (“Today it seems like you don’t feel like eating much”)?
The balance of honoring the innate qualities in our children and allowing their stories to naturally develop may be subtle and tricky at times. It means being present and supportive of what we observe and understand about our children right now, while at the same time being open and excited about the changes and developments that are to come. It means being flexible in action and respectful in the stories we tell. It means more time spent reflecting on the moment and less time spent labeling in the broader sense of the word. And, in the end, it means remembering that our child’s life is her story, not ours.