Recently, I heard a fascinating talk by Stephen Grosz, an American psychoanalyst who lives and practices in London. His book, “The Examined Life, How We Lose and Find Ourselves,” is about storytelling, his point being that we are all storytellers creating stories to make sense of our lives. The book is a collection of short stories about his patients, whose stories he uses to illumine various themes that most of us can recognize – even if we are not patients.
As parents, we most certainly are storytellers, constantly telling stories to and about our children – but also about ourselves. Children love to hear family stories from their parents, wanting to hear again stories about when they were babies, or about things they or their parents did in the past. Parents sometimes make nervous jokes that something they have done to their child might one day end as a story told in a psychiatrist’s office about what bad parents they were.
On the other hand, as parents we also at times make connections between our own behavior toward our children, our own childhood selves and our own parents. Grosz tells a number of such stories about parents and children. One story of particular interest concerned a woman who while expressing irritation toward a friend who had criticized her for another of her friendships, suddenly remembered a profound incident from her childhood.
The story concerned her love for one of her first teachers. At the end of the year she made a card to give the teacher, thanking her for being her teacher and telling her she loved her more than anyone, even her mother. She showed the card to her father who was most disapproving, telling her she could not write what she did as it was not true. She was told to rewrite the card because her eraser did not adequately remove the offending sentiment. This episode now seemed to her to be related to a lifelong pattern of doubting her own feelings – relying on what she thinks she is supposed to feel rather that what she does feel.
Feelings are an important part of any relationship and that is especially true of relationships between parents and children. Children express their feelings through their behavior – often in behavior unacceptable to those with whom they are interacting. This is especially true of angry feelings when they are expressed by striking out either physically or verbally.
Children are often not clear what their feelings are, or what they are related to, which is part of the reason they are unable to express them appropriately. Actually, adults can have the same problem and like their children may need help in understanding what is bothering them. All of us have the same wish to be heard and understood and stories at times help make that possible.
When children are struggling with their feelings about wanting to be grown up but also wanting to be a baby, they are helped by hearing their parents’ stories about them when they actually were babies. This helps, too, when they are confronted with the care being given to a new baby in the family. In the same way, when they are learning how to control their impulses and “bad” behavior, they love to hear stories about “bad” things their parents did which got them into trouble. It is reassuring to know that your parents weren’t perfect either.
When my son was a young teen-ager I was driving him somewhere that took us through a toll booth. No EZ passes in those days – you had to throw coins in a basket. I tossed the required coin in from the car window and my son admired my “great shot.” I reminded him that I had practice, shooting baskets with him in his room when he was little. Sounding pleased, he said, “I bet you are sorry we grew up.” I told him I was happy about how they were growing up but sometimes I missed those other people they used to be. He thought for a moment and said, “Me, too.”
We’re never too old to have times of wishing we were still children being cared for by our parents. Stories can help us get in touch with our own feelings and those of our children – which in turn help us better connect to each other.