Change Your Family’s Narrative
“Great stories happen to those who can tell them.” — Ira Glass.
Everyone loves a good story. Some of our favorite experiences have to do with stories — whether it’s reading a good book, seeing your favorite movie, or maybe even gathering around with family and friends and telling the tale of some funny or memorable adventure that you’ve had together. Those who move us and inspire us the most are often good storytellers. Think of people like Steven Spielberg, Maya Angelou, or even people outside of the arts, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Steve Jobs. Stories help us to connect with the people and events all around us. They help us to make sense of the world. Stories and the people who tell them have an immeasurable impact on our lives as human beings.
And you might not know it, but you are — right now — living out your life as a story — and how you tell yourself that story has the most profound impact of all.
You see, we all have a narrative. We all have a story that we use to describe ourselves, both to other people and in our own heads. It might be something like an elevator pitch — “I’m Steve Silvestro, I’m a pediatrician, a dad, and host of The Child Repair Guide podcast, and my passion in life is to distill and share information in an engaging way that helps people live their lives more confidently.” There might be an autobiographical component to your narrative — “I grew up in Colorado, went to college in California, got married, had kids, and am currently working as a software engineer.”
But most importantly, our narratives are often colored in some way by opinions of ourselves, opinions that define how we think about ourselves and how we work — “I’m a 32-year-old stay-at-home mom, I’m great with people and a good friend, but I have a hard time accomplishing my goals, and I feel like I’m not who I used to be and don’t know what I want to do with my life.” It’s these opinion-laden narratives that have the most impact on how we think about ourselves and how we act in life.
As parents, though, there’s a whole other layer. Just as we build these defining stories about ourselves, over time, we as parents will often develop a narrative about our families, too. We build impressions and stories about who our kids are, how our relationships with our partners work, and how the dynamics of our families play out.
But thing with narratives — and why they’re so important — is that they create the framework for what you see and experience, and even how you act on everything that happens in your life. So if the narrative about your family is great, if you think, “I have a great husband, my kids are amazing, I love my job,” then living through that narrative is wonderful. You are going to keep feeling that your husband is loving and your kids bring you joy, and that any experiences that might run contrary to those beliefs are just hiccups that are going to pass.
However, I am willing to bet that for many of you reading this, there are some days where your narrative might be more of something like this: “Well my oldest is my clingy one and really pushes my buttons, my middle child is the smart one but on her own planet sometimes, my youngest is the cute one and so she gets away with everything.” Haven’t we all had a moment here and there when we’ve thought something like that?
The biggest problem with narratives, especially when we start shading them with negative assessments about ourselves and our families, is that they end up pigeonholing us and the people we love.
To illustrate that, let’s talk about something that many of you spend your Saturday mornings watching: kids’ soccer!
I coach both of my kids’ soccer teams. First grade boys and third grade girls. And among all the things that are important for a coach to try and think about at these ages is to make sure that all the kids get to play at all the positions. I have to make sure that I don’t label a child as always a fullback. Or another child as always a striker on offense. Or someone else as always goalie. Because while playing fullback 100% of the time from first grade on might make a child become a really good fullback someday, he’s going to miss out on all of the skills that he could learn at the other positions — he’s not going to become a well-rounded player. Plus, who knows? With exposure to another position, that child just might find that he loves that new position even more and that that is who he is meant to be.
When we let ourselves live out a confining narrative, we are letting our family get pigeonholed as goalie. We’re losing the opportunity for everyone in our family to run around and develop new skills, to challenge themselves and to grow as people. And we are holding ourselves back from growing, too — as parents, and as individuals ourselves.
Now, it may be that some of you have been reading so far and have said to yourselves, “No, I don’t have a narrative at all.” And it may be that you aren’t consciously aware of it. But whether you are aware of your own narrative or not — you’ve been living it. Because unless you’ve been taking each moment, each interaction, with the members of your family and approaching it with a clean slate and an open mind — and if you are, I applaud you, because that’s not easily done — if you’re not starting afresh in each moment, then you are creating and living out a narrative.
You see, the reason for that is that the things that we do, think, and experience, have an impact on what we do, think, and experience next. And this is where narratives have both a potential for good and a potential dark side.
Every interaction we have is influenced by the interaction that came before it. Think: the Jurassic Park explanation of a butterfly in Beijing flapping its wings and ultimately leading to rain in Central Park. If getting your kids through the bedtime process of going upstairs, getting into pajamas, brushing teeth, reading a book, and into bed — if all of that was a massive struggle last night, then tonight you’re going to approach bedtime with last night in mind. You might try and have a conversation with your kids beforehand telling them not to repeat last night’s performance. Or, you might be stricter tonight, being a bit shorter with them and cutting them little slack. Either way, you are creating and therefore living out a narrative: “My kids are hard at bedtime.” Does that sound familiar?
If you’re like me, then that’s not really a narrative that you want to play out every single day. Thinking like that — that our kids are a challenge and that parenting is hard — is only going to reinforce the feeling that our kids are challenging and parenting is hard.
But let’s go back to the quote from Ira Glass that opened this episode:
“Great stories happen to those who can tell them.”
If you want to live a great life with your family, you need to write a great narrative.
So this is an article with an assignment. I want you to get a piece of paper and draw out 3 columns. In the first column, write down what you think your family narrative might be. Think of one for your family as a whole, but then write one down for each person in your family — think about how you interact with each person and what your narrative about that relationship might be. Next, in the middle column, write down the narratives that you want to have. What do you want the dynamic of your whole family and with each family member to be like? Then in the last column, write down ideas of how you might communicate differently, or things you might do to make those goal narratives a reality.
Then, finally — I want you to turn this assignment in! Email at firstname.lastname@example.org, message me at Dr Steve Silvestro on Facebook, or on Twitter @Zendocsteve and show me your results. I mean it! Let me know what you’ve written or send over a picture of your piece of paper!
And if you have a hard time coming up with the steps for your third column, let me know. I want to hear how you’re turning your family’s narrative around, and I want to be there to help you do it!
Don’t read your life story. Write your life story. And when it comes to your family, don’t just simply live out a narrative filled with limitations, write your family’s narrative so that you can all live amazing lives as individuals, and an inspired, fulfilling, loving life together as a family.
Dr. Steve Silvestro is a pediatrician, dad, and host of The Child Repair Guide Podcast, where this article is also available to listen to as a podcast episode.