|Flanna, age 2|
I was talking to my daughter recently about her earliest memory. She says she can remember me singing while I stood holding her in the shower in our green tiled bathroom with the bamboo shower curtain in our old home on Pulaski Street in Athens, GA. She would've been about 2 at that time. I do remember that moment, because it was unusual for me to hold her in the shower. I usually gave her a bath, and even if I had given her a shower, I would usually just hold her hand and let her stand in the shower because I was too nervous I would drop her if I was holding her. But on that morning, she had been sick, and I wanted to hold her up high so she could breathe in more steam from the shower. I remember being nervous and holding her slippery soapy body so tightly, so she couldn't wiggle out of my arms. But she just remembers a sweet warm care-taking experience, thank goodness, not my fear of her slipping!
Anyway, she asked why she doesn't remember anything from before this memory. There were probably zillions of things that happened before that day that were just as interesting, if not more interesting than that first memory. And I told her that one of my professors had taught me that we often do have sensory memories from before our "first memory," but that until we can understand and tell stories, we aren't able to encode those memories so that we can later recall them. It was probably around 2 or 2 1/2 when she was first able to understand and tell simple stories, and that's probably why she remembers and can recall this moment.
I think a lot about how stories are so important to us as humans. Stories help us make sense of who we are, of who our family is and was, of how we got to this place and where we might go. Stories are more than just looking back and reminiscing, they are actually important in how we see ourselves as connected to the world and what we think of ourselves individually. Carol Westby, a brilliant SLP and researcher, remarked in a recent journal article about the importance of teaching children to create stories about their own lives, "A coherent life story can lead to making informed choices, learning to effectively solve problems, and taking control of and responsibility for one’s life." Also, as I've discussed before in this blog, researchers at Emory University's Family Narratives lab say, "... adolescents who are embedded in a storied family history show higher levels of emotional well-being, perhaps because these stories provide larger narrative frameworks for understanding self and the world, and because these stories help provide a sense of continuity across generations in ways that promote a secure identity (see Fivush, Bohanek, & Duke, 2008, for a full theoretical discussion)." When we can tell a story about how we overcame an obstacle, or how our family members faced strife but persevered, we help our children become more reflective individuals who can calmly face problems, flip back through their library of their own or others' experiences, and come up with solutions that might work in this case.
So, don't sugar coat your family history. Tell your children the good family memories, but also the hard ones. For Flanna, some of those include: How her great great grandma died young, but the older children took care of the younger children as well as they could for as long as they could. How the younger ones had to be sent to an orphanage, but they kept in touch and always sent letters back and forth. How her grandparents worked hard physical jobs that were tough on their bodies in order to earn enough money to send their children to college, and their children were the first to graduate college on either side of the family. How her great grandpa had a car wreck that caused a spinal cord injury but worked hard to relearn things with therapy and really enjoyed the therapy dogs that would visit the rehab center. How her great aunt wanted to have children for so many years and didn't give up and finally became a mom for the first time in her 40s. How her grandmother had to move from one state to another the summer before her senior year of high school, and how that felt like the end of the world, but actually allowed her to meet her future husband. How her great grandpa realized as an older man that he was actually homosexual, and how hard that was for the family, but also how it was probably such a relief for him not to feel like he was hiding his true self anymore. How her great grandmother grew up in poverty but became a Women's Army Corps member and learned skills and got a great job as a switchboard operator and was able to provide for herself even after her divorce.
Giving our children the good stories along with the bad can steel them for the tough times in their own lives. From our family stories, Flannery could learn: that families take care of one another, that families work hard to stay connected, that our family values education, that it runs in her family to love animals, that children are a gift not a burden, that sometimes scary changes work out well in the end, that you need to listen to your heart and be true to yourself about who you are from the beginning, that it's smart to work hard and be independent and always be able to provide for yourself. It's hard and scary to talk about difficult things with our children, and we definitely need to wait until they are old enough to understand the concepts, but it's important to be bold enough to tell our tough family stories as well as the good memories.
What family stories do you think have shaped who you are as a person? What stories do you want to be sure to pass down to your children or your children's children?
Fivush, R., Bohanek, J. G., & Zaman, W. (2010). Personal and intergenerational narrativesin relation to adolescents’ well-being. In T. Habermas (Ed.), The development of autobiographicalreasoning in adolescence and beyond. New Directions for Child and AdolescentDevelopment, 131, 45–57.
Westby, C. & Culatta, B. (2016, Oct.). Telling tales: Personal event narratives and life stories. Language Speech and Hearing Services in Schools, Vol. 47, pp. 260-282.