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 example, she writes, There was the man who grew up in dire poverty but told [the researcher] that his hard circumstances brought him and his family closer together. There was the woman who told him that caring for a close friend as the friend was dying was a harrowing experience, but one that ultimately renewed her commitment to being a nurse, a career she’d abandoned.” 

When I share this research with teenagers, I’m quick to add that this doesn’t mean we are supposed to feel grateful for the hardships themselves, to be glad for the pain and loss! Rather, it means that in the aftermath of these experiences — as we integrate these moments into the fabric of our life story — humans have an incredible capacity to make meaning out of struggle.

Post-Traumatic Growth

Last year, I had a chance to speak to Hope Edelman about her new book, The AfterGrief: Finding Your Way Along the Long Arc of Loss. She talked about the concept of post-traumatic growth — that a traumatic experience “can sometimes be a springboard to a form of personal growth, and that includes, oftentimes, an enhanced sense of meaning or purpose in your own life.” 

In her research, as people travel the long arc of grief (a place we will all be on at some point), they often come to the place where they can say:

“I was able to grow from it in this way. I became resilient and it helped me deal with this other challenge in my life.”

Or

“This loss really helped me put things in perspective. I began to understand what’s important and what’s not, what’s worth getting upset about, and what’s not.”

As Edelman says, living through the pain “changes your worldview, and sometimes you find meaning in this new worldview.”

As we make our way through another COVID winter, now is a good time to gather up and share our stories with one another: stories about times we found the strength to “just keep swimming” and stories about times when someone else reached in to grab us when we began to sink. Stories that remind us how to reach out with compassion to all those standing, right now, at the edge of the pool.

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 dfkris@gmail.com, or visit her website: Parenthood365 (https://www.parenthood365.com/)

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