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On the days when my children seem to fight continuously, I wonder if my careful teaching about sharing, love and patience has made any difference. Then, in family home evening lesson the other night, my four-year-old daughter repeated a story I told her the week before. It was about a time when her brother showed his love for her. In that sweet moment, the Spirit whispered to me that the stories I tell my children are being heard and remembered. There is power in the narratives we intentionally tell our children.

Susan W. Tanner spoke about sharing memories with her children at crucial teaching moments. When one of her daughters got married and moved away, Sister Tanner wondered if she had taught her everything she needed to know. She then remembered the little journal she gave her daughter at age 17 filled with advice from their late night conversations. It was entitled “Did I Tell You…?” Sister Tanner carefully selected additional memories from their family’s growing up years to include in the journal that would help her daughter make the transition to being a wife and mother. She wrote,

Remember how we laughed and cried as we built the backyard fence? Remember how every time we drove in the car we sang so we wouldn’t quarrel? Remember how we fasted for one member’s important decision and for another’s crucial test?”[1]

These memories, written down, and shared by a loving mother, provided a way for Sister Tanner’s daughter to access the strength and learning of the generation before her.

Sharing what we have learned through life’s experiences is an effective way to connect with and teach our children. But what if your children are young, like mine? Is it too early to begin sharing these stories and memories with them?

Elder Bradley D. Foster said, “It’s never too early and it’s never too late to begin this important process.”[2] Elder Foster interviewed an exceptional young man named Pablo from Mexico City who was preparing to serve a mission. He was impressed with the young man and asked him about who had influenced him and helped him become so obedient and upright. Pablo then told about his Father’s careful, intentional teachings. Beginning at age 9, Pablo’s father shared his experiences as a young person with his son. He would say,

‘Pablo, I was nine once too. Here are some things you may come across. You’ll see people cheating in school. You might be around people who swear. You’ll probably have days when you don’t want to go to church. Now, when these things happen—or anything else that troubles you—I want you to come and talk to me, and I’ll help you get through them. And then I’ll tell you what comes next.’

Elder Foster wanted to do the same thing with his own children, but they were all grown up. The Spirit prompted him that “it’s never too early and it’s never too late to lead, guide, and walk beside our children, because families are forever.”

The Family Narratives Project

Research has shown that parents can be influential in their children’s lives by sharing and co-creating memories that connect them to a positive family narrative. Robyn Fivush, psychology professor and researcher at Emory College, found that mothers have great power to shape their children’s emotional well-being through telling stories about family.[3]

In their study, “The Family Narratives Project,” Fivush and her colleagues discovered a unique way that several of the mothers being studied were sharing stories with their children. The researchers called it “kin-keeping.” These kin-keeping mothers told family stories from the past and kept family history alive and meaningful. They helped children tell and retell the family stories, what researchers call co-narrating. The stories were relationship oriented and were told with great detail, elaboration, and emotion.

Researchers concluded that kin-keeping mothers helped their children become “embedded in a storied family history,” which gave them higher levels of emotional well-being.[4] Why is that? Researchers hypothesize that family stories and memories provide a strong family narrative to help children understand themselves, their identity, and place in the world. Family stories also give them continuity through generations and a sense of secure identity and belonging.

Telling Stories with Detail and Emotion

Have you told your children a story from your past with great detail and emotion? Very young children have a limited concept of the past. Telling them family history works best when focused on the recent past – what happened last week, last year, and when their parents were young. As their concept of time grows, they can begin to understand their grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on.

The story I told my four-year-old about her brother’s love was full of emotion and detail. My purpose in telling her the story was to remind her that although she and her brother fight sometimes, they love each other. I said,

Let me tell you a story about how much your brother loves you. A couple weeks ago, when you tripped and got a big cut on your head, I was very scared. Everyone got in the car and we drove you to the hospital. While Daddy took you back to see the doctor, I talked to your brother about what happened. He was very sad that you were hurt, and he cried. I told him it was going to be okay, but he was very worried about you. Then he went with Dad to get donuts while I stayed with you. You got all your stitches and were so brave. When your brother came back from the donut store, he gave you a donut. It was a very special donut – your favorite kind! He had picked it out just for you, because he loves you.

My daughter loved the story and has since recited it several times, including at our family home evening the other day. We were learning about putting off the natural man and becoming a saint through the atonement of Jesus Christ. We talked about ways that she and her brother could learn to become more like a saint and less like a natural man. They both made goals to be kind and loving to each other.

Family History and Temple Work for Children

Intentionally choosing to tell and retell stories of love and connection within our families can strengthen us and heal broken family relationships. The healing power of family history when combined with temple work is a blessing Elder Dale Renlund described in the April 2018 General Conference.[5]

At the Family History Leadership Session of RootsTech 2018, Sister Joy D. Jones, Primary general president and a member of the Temple and Family History Executive Council, said, “Children love to learn about their ancestors. Family stories can teach them important lessons and help them develop a foundation of strength they can draw from throughout their lives.”[6]

Sister Jones went on to say that helping children participate in family history may require different methods, but is worth the effort and creativity. She encouraged adults to help children act out a meaningful family story, learn about their family culture and recipes, and view photos of relatives as children. Then she shared President Nelson’s admonition to not only learn about our ancestors but help free them from spirit prison through the ordinances of the temple.

Young children can prepare for temple work by discovering stories about the past, while older children, ages 8-11 can begin learning how to research and gather their ancestors. All children can prepare to receive their limited-use temple recommend so that when they turn 12, they can go to the temple and connect their ancestors through the sealing power.

Gaining Strength from Ancestors

While my children are young, I’m helping them discover their ancestors’ stories. Then, when they are 12, they will have the foundation they need to do temple work for ancestors when they are 12.

Discovering stories of ancestors is a delightful process. Stories of ancestors can even help children develop specific qualities. I noticed my daughter is fearless and daring. I wanted to encourage the growth of this quality, so I created a binder for her called the “Brave Women Book.” Inside, I compiled short stories about myself, and her grandmothers being brave. My daughter colored the pictures for each story and delights in “reading” the book to us.

It was cute to see how much she loved the book, but a more meaningful effect of the book became clear when she was faced with a moment of actually being brave. After her collision with the couch, she was laying on the hospital bed feeling very afraid of getting stitches. At that moment, as I held her hand, she remembered her brave women in her book. “Mom, I can be a brave woman, right?”

I was so glad that in her moment of fear, she thought of her brave grandmothers. She followed the doctor’s instructions to hold still and was very brave as she received her stitches. A few days later, she colored a picture of herself to place in her brave women book. She called upon the bravery of her ancestors in a difficult moment and then solidified her identity as a brave woman.

How else can we help our children gain strength from their ancestors? President and Sister Oaks shared an idea at RootsTech Discovery Day in February. They created posters featuring a righteous quality that one might want to develop. Under each poster was a photo of an ancestor who exemplified this quality. They invited their grandchildren to sign up on each poster for the qualities they wanted to have, then they uncovered the ancestor beneath the posters and talked about each one. [7]

Keeping a Record

To remember recent family history, parents can help children keep a record of their own experiences. My mother kept a journal for each of us when we were young. When we were old enough to write, she let us write our names in the journal and draw a picture. Then she helped us begin writing about ourselves. I finished my journal when I was 12 and began the habit of writing in my journal often.

I have tried to continue the habit of journaling. Making a concerted effort to record precious memories and moments about my children in my journal helps me to craft a narrative of love, gratitude, and joy that I want our family to remember. As I record stories in my journal, I am more prepared to share them with my children.

Intentional storytelling is a powerful tool. As parents remember the good that happens, they can help their children remember the good. Our stories have remarkable power to shape our children’s personal narratives. Their emotional and spiritual well-being is being formed each day as we co-narrate the past with them. What kind of narrative will we create? What stories will we repeat?

Intentional Parenting

At BYU Women’s Conference in 2017, Sister Joy Jones spoke about intentional parenting.

She said, “Each parent’s circumstances are different and there is no singular recipe for perfect parents or a perfect family. However, there are some perfect parenting principles. We can look to our Heavenly Father as the perfect example of how to parent. He is the epitome of intentional parenting. Patterning our parenting skills after the truths found in His scriptures can be our guide. ”[8]

How intentional is our Heavenly Father in providing a positive narrative for us to learn from? We need only look so far as the scriptures. One of His greatest priorities through time has been providing scripture for His children to study and learn from. The scriptures teach us about our ancestors, their righteous qualities, and our Father’s plan to gather and reunite all His children. They teach us the words of Christ that bring the Spirit into our lives.

Nephi carefully included on his small plates only the things of God. He wrote the things of his soul, for the learning and profit of his children.[9] We, too, can create our own “small plates,” with our personal spiritual experiences and stories for our children to learn from. In doing so, we are parenting as our Father in Heaven does and providing a reservoir of strength for our children.

Notes: 

[1] Susan W. Tanner, “Did I Tell You … ?” LDS General Conference, April 2003, LDS.org (https://www.lds.org : accessed 24 April 2018).

[2] Bradley D. Foster, “It’s Never Too Early and It’s Never Too Late” LDS General Conference, October 2015, LDS.org (https://www.lds.org : accessed 24 April 2018).

[3] Fivush, R., Bohanek, J. G., & Zaman, W, “Personal and intergenerational narratives in relation to adolescents’ well-being,” The development of autobiographical reasoning in adolescence and beyond: New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development 131 (2011): 45–57.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Dale G. Renlund, “Family History and Temple Work: Sealing and Healing,” LDS General Conference, April 2018, LDS.org (https://www.lds.org : accessed 24 April 2018).

[6] R. Scott Lloyd, “Leaders teach about gathering God’s family on both sides of the veil,” LDS Church News, 9 March 2018 (https://www.lds.org/church/news/: accessed 24 April 2018).

[7] RootsTech, Family Discovery Day 2018: President and Sister Oaks, video https://www.rootstech.org/video/family-discovery-day-2018-president-and-sister-oaks

 

[8] Rachel Sterzer, “Parents, Take Active Role in Teaching Children, Says Primary General Presidency,” LDS Church News, 12 May 2017 (https://www.lds.org/church/news/: accessed 24 April 2018).

[9] 2 Nephi 4:15