Children have the ability to live in the moment as they observe, absorb and interpret information. Each day presents opportunities to connect with who they are in relation to their world. Their most impactful experiences begin in the home where they observe and model after their parents. They look to their parents to distinguish between right and wrong, and to understand how to engage with their environment. Sometimes referred to as Affective Meaning Making (David Oppenheim – 2006), children interpret their self-concept and sense of competence through interactions with their parents. This speaks to how parents need to prioritize how we communicate with our children. While we nurture, protect and teach our children, we can also ask ourselves – how are they receiving our messages? How do our messages affect them, and how do our children interpret what we tell them about themselves?
How Narratives Affect Self-Concept
As our children grow, we notice and develop ideas about their characteristics, attributes and behaviors. Sometimes we share these thoughts (or narratives) with them. At other times, they might hear us sharing these same thoughts with our partners or with others. In the moment, our children absorb these stories and come to know them as personal truths.
Narratives are helpful when they celebrate strengths and attributes (e.g., Roberta is compassionate, Jamal is studious, Gerald is helpful, Parveen pays attention, Devon is kind). Yet sometimes narratives represent the struggles we experience with our children (e.g., Elijah can’t follow direction, Ellen is clumsy, Josh is always late, Kenny struggles socially, Lydia is rebellious). Gradually, what might appear to caring adults as trivial and passing comments, develop into narratives that affect our children’s core beliefs. As they explore daily life, they begin to act on these beliefs. If for example, a child believes that they struggle socially, they will likely choose to abstain from social situations. As they continue to distance themselves socially, they affect their ability to develop social skills over time.
During informal conversations, children have inadvertently shared their negative personal narratives with me. For example, a six year-old child told me that they would not be able to draw the picture because they weren’t a good artist. A ten-year-old said that there was no point in joining Sports Day, because they weren’t a good athlete. When I asked a fifteen-year-old to keep an eye on the bake sale for a moment, they reluctantly accepted, expressing that they were incapable of successfully managing ‘something like this’. When I complimented a seventeen-year-old on their graduating year, they told me not to bet on it, as they would never be able to actually graduate. These stories imprint in children’s minds, affecting their self-concept and sense of autonomy. Even at a young age, they define who they are and what they are not able to accomplish. Michael Lewis’ quote from The American Life Podcast, paints a poignant picture of the impact of how we interpret and describe our personal narratives:
“These stories we tell about ourselves – they’re almost like our infrastructure, like railroads or highways. We can build them almost any way we want to. But once they’re in place, this whole inner landscape grows up around them. So maybe the point here is that we should be careful about how we tell our story, or at least how we are conscious of it. Because once we’ve told it, once we’ve built the highway, it’s just very hard to move it.”
Reframing Narratives with a Focus on Personal Strengths
Narratives that dwell on children’s strengths and attributes enable children to notice their abilities, rather than their deficits. When children struggle (with learning, behavior or wellness), we can ask ourselves a solution-focused question: What do we notice about how they support their own successful outcomes when they are not struggling? Remember that no personal challenge occurs all the time. In these ‘struggle-free’ moments, how are our children managing themselves? How are they using personal characteristics, skills, abilities and strategies to cope? As we seek to understand our children through a solution-focused lens, we develop a renewed and deeper awareness of their competence. With guidance, we can support our children to see that they are so much more than their personal labels. We can encourage them to think about moments of exception, when they use abilities or coping skills to support success even in the midst of the most challenging of circumstances. For example, a child might struggle with the ability to focus, yet when they wear earphones and listen to music, they are much more successful at staying on task. Similarly, a child may experience social anxiety in small group situations, but as a board game lover, can successfully socialize with others over a game. Noticing and verbalizing these strengths and strategies, empowers and motivates children.
Specific praise further supports how we highlight strengths in our children. Specific praise feels good in the moment, but more importantly, it points to indicators that help a child understand their efficacy – exactly what they said, did or accomplished, and that supported a successful outcome. As we verbally celebrate their strengths and small successes, our children are inspired to use personal resources again and in different contexts.
In shifting the existing narrative, we can also help our children to see the bigger picture. People young and old are all beautifully imperfect. We don’t always get it right. In fact, we often learn by getting it wrong, and by benefitting from our mistakes. Paul Tough who writes about character and childhood, (2012, p. 98), adds that ‘presenting character to students not as a set of fixed traits, but as a series of constantly developing attributes, will inspire them to improve their character traits’ and ‘ if you teach kids to pay attention to character, their character will transform’. Tough’s message points to the importance for parents and caring adults to teach our children that they are not stuck in ways of being. All it takes to learn just about anything is to put our minds to it, and to embrace the value of learning in small progressive steps. This message provides our children with hope as they recognize that all of their behaviors, feelings, or experiences (even those that are uniquely challenging) are changeable. As individuals, we can apply ourselves to learn and achieve whatever we choose, in our own unique ways. This message of growth, change, progress and success for ALL children, sparks the opportunity for new narratives and relationships with our children.
Understanding our Children Differently, Through Informal Connection
Connecting with our children is most valuable in helping to notice them differently and to reframe existing narratives. Informal conversations usually work best during play, dinner, a drive, an outing or walk. Other good times to try would be before bedtime or while watching television. As we model informal and positive talk with our children, they come to appreciate it. With younger children or with those who may not be as verbal, it is helpful to use materials with which they can express themselves (toys, props, paper and crayons, construction materials, or music). In addition to informal conversation, take the time to observe your children during homework, playtime, as they engage in activities, or hang around the house. What do they enjoy doing? How do they respond to and interact with their environment? You will discover unique attributes that you may not have previously noticed. Remember that while all children share some similarities, they are also all distinctly different from one another in their personalities, personal characteristics, interests and needs. By purposefully listening to them, learning about and connecting with them, your children will reveal their unique qualities and show you their best selves.
Activity – How did You Manage That?
Try this activity with your child or with the whole family. You can ask this question at any time, during dinner, a walk, or a drive. It amplifies everyone’s abilities, strengths and coping strategies. Each person has an opportunity to share something they experienced or accomplished that day, of which they were proud (e.g., a small task, a work-related or learning task, a personally meaningful moment, a game, sport or hobby, a chore or household task, a new experience, an event or excursion, an investigation of some sort, etc.). As they reflect on successes, encourage them to think of the small ones that could have easily gone unnoticed. Everyone experiences some or at least one of these in a day (e.g., doing something to support their well-being, following through on something they had been putting off, successfully completing a small task that had previously been challenging, making a contribution to a friend, a group or team, choosing a healthy option, trying something new or different, etc.).
Once each has shared their experience, family members ask the question, ‘How did you manage that’? This prompts each person to think about the personal resources they used to accomplish all or part of their task/experience. In this dedicated moment, you can discuss and celebrate each person’s strengths, as well as the circumstances that contributed to their small success.
A Final Thought
Personal labels affect children, even if they are not aware of them. We can take action as parents and caring adults, and help our children by positively reframing their narratives to support their attributes. It is never too late. As we actively highlight their strengths, we will teach our children to do so as well. They will begin to think about and describe themselves differently, better. As they continue to accumulate positive personal stories, they will actively be supporting their own well-being and building a strong self-concept. They will allow themselves to embark on new learning and will be better able to address life’s challenges with confidence, competence and independence.
Vicky Essebag M.Ed – CPSY, OPC, CSFC., is a relational communication specialist who prioritizes an intentional approach to developing healthy and inclusive relationships. As an experienced school administrator, solution-focused coach & trainer, and family therapist, she inspires parents, schools and organizations to cultivate and strengthen communication that promotes success and well-being. Vicky is Founder of Relationspaces; Solution-Focused Consulting-Coaching-Training-Instructional leadership.www.relationspace.com or email@example.com
Oppenheim, D. 2006. Child, Parent, and Parent–Child Emotion Narratives: Implications for Developmental Psychopathology. Development and Psychopathology 18, 771–790. U.S.A. Cambridge University Press.
Lewis, M. (Sept. 6, 2013) This American Life Podcast. Episode #504 with Glass, I.
Tough, Paul. 2012. How Children Succeed; Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character. New York. Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt.