How Stories Help Kids (and Adults) Make Meaning | Deborah Farmer Kris | 3 Min Read

A few summers ago, my young daughter stood at the edge of a pool. She had learned to swim at a local lake, where she could wade in gently. Now, she wanted to conquer an old fear: jumping. 

She approached and then retreated.

“You don’t have to do this today if you don’t want to,” I said.

“I’m doing this,” she said. 

“Okay, then I’ll wait here in the water until you are ready.”

As I watched her battle between flight and resolve — and then watched her dive! — I thought of this quote from psychologist Susan David,

“Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is fear walking.” 

Or fear jumping.

As we talked later, I told her,

“Now you have another story to tell yourself the next time you are scared. You can remember that moment on the edge and say, ‘I did it then and I can do it again.’”

Stories Matter

Stories are powerful tools for motivating children and teens, inspiring their vision of who they can be, and helping them find meaning in life’s challenges. 

According to research, teens who read about the struggles of scientists are more motivated to learn science. Why?  Because these “struggle stories” normalized that setbacks are a part of a successful professional journey.  

Another study found that children who hear stories about how family members overcame obstacles are more resilient in the face of challenges. Strong family narratives are protective, reminding kids that they belong to something larger than themselves. And as kids learn about how other people navigate life’s ups and downs, they develop multiple mental blueprints for how to do this themselves.

But how we tell our own stories also matters.

In Emily Esfahani Smith’s book The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, she notes that we don’t share every detail when we tell stories about our lives. We make narrative choices. And our stories tend to focus on extraordinary, memorable events, — good and bad — because these are the moments that we try to make sense of. These are the moments that have shaped us. 

According to her research, “People who are driven to contribute to society and to future generations are more likely to tell redemptive stories about their lives, or stories that transition from bad to good.” For…

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Deborah Farmer Kris

A writer, teacher, parent, and child development expert, Deborah Farmer Kris writes regularly for PBS KIDS for Parents and NPR’s MindShift; her work has been featured several times in The Washington Post; and she is the author of the All the Time picture book series (coming out in 2022) focused on social-emotional growth. A popular speaker, Deborah has a B.A. in English, a B.S. in Education, and an M.Ed. in Counseling Psychology. Mostly, she loves finding and sharing nuggets of practical wisdom that can help kids and families thrive — including her own. You can follow her on Twitter @dfkris, contact her at [email protected], or visit her website: Parenthood365 (