Your child needs to hear about your terrible choices, too
It could heal the whole family
My father has always been the storyteller responsible for passing down family history. There were certain anecdotes I looked forward to hearing over and over. His encounter with a tiger while returning from school in rural Karnataka – he’d milk that one, making it more and more dramatic each time — or when his mom caught him and his brother smoking as teens and gave them a memorable lashing.
When I was a teenager and could barely use a calculator correctly but somehow harboured notions of studying science, he told me about the time he wanted to become a doctor, and failed. He felt disappointed, that he’d let his family down. “I really tried hard but it wasn’t to happen”, he told me. The failure didn’t stop him. He eventually went to a different college and became a successful pharmacist.
Over the years, I’ve thought about my father’s tryst with failure a few times — when I didn’t get into a decent science college in Mumbai, or when I didn’t crack the MBA CAT. I, especially, couldn’t stop thinking about it when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, three months into my life as a freelancer, and writing assignments quickly dried up. This nugget of family history always helped me feel better. Like a soothing pat on the back, telling me it was going to be okay. It kept me going.
Passing down family history can have that effect. Studies show that children who have grown up hearing personal stories of overcoming struggles have higher levels of emotional well-being. They also suffer less from depression and anxiety, and deal with trauma better.
“For almost any problem that a child has, there is a tale within the family that can make them feel better and help them navigate life’s changes,” says Tanvi Jha, a Lucknow-based psychologist.
Share your failures with children
Experts agree that it’s not always about sharing happy memories, parents need to talk to children about the painful moments in their family history too. “It shows them that they aren’t alone. It also frees families from the unspoken burdens of secrecy and shame,” says Jha.
Sanjeev Shah, 53, an advertising professional in Mumbai, gave up alcohol after meeting with a near-fatal car accident due to drunken driving. When his twin daughters turned 16, he sat them down and told them about the incident. “I want them to have fun, but to also understand the consequences of their decisions. I wished someone had done the same for me,” he says.
Media professional Nidhi Singh*, 28, recounts how she was never allowed to attend sleepovers as a child. “My mom watched me like a hawk whenever I was with a male relative,” she says. When Nidhi was 15, her mother eventually told her of the time when she had been molested by a distant relative. “She’d never told anyone about it, but wanted me to know so that I remained safe. It made me respect her, and become more protective of her. Telling me her truth also liberated her, and our bond has grown stronger,” she says.
When her son was young, Veena Karnik avoided sharing stories about her mother, who had died of colorectal cancer when she was a teenager. “I worried that this could frighten him,” says the Pune-based homemaker. It was not until he asked, “How did Ajji die?” that she told him the truth. “It was my fear, not his, that was keeping me silent. I was scared that I, too, could die young, leaving my kid alone. I was unintentionally passing on my insecurities.”
We often scrub family history of details that may seem scary or awkward. But life is messy (#DaagAchheHai, right?), and being transparent can start the healing process for the parents while imparting valuable lessons to the kids.
Creating opportunities to share family history
Storytelling, like any other skill, has to be honed. “It cannot be forced. Parents need to create moments where stories can be told — intimate family dinners, car trips are all great opportunities,” says Jha. It also helps if the stories can relate to what the child is going through. For instance, talking about bullying on the first day of school or college is both a cautionary and reassuring tale.
“Parents must also use simple language, try to make the story detailed, and explain the situation in a manner that matches the child’s capacity. Younger children might prefer an actual story, while teens may not like long chats, so keep it short and to the point. Parents should avoid repeating stories unless requested by the child,” says Dr Sonal Anand, psychiatrist, Wockhardt Hospitals.
If you cannot talk face to face, making videos or even writing emails could work. “Kids should know that there are mysteries in the universe, and we don’t know the answers to everything. On the other hand, topics such as alcohol addiction and drug experimentation can be explained with practical pointers. Don’t rush the subject or use an “it’s bad…don’t do it” approach,” says Anand.
There’s a reason fairy tales never shy away from including the wolf. If you banish the wolf, you also eliminate the hero. The same goes for family stories. So, share them all — not just the ones with happy endings.
* name changed for anonymity