In Part 1 of Being the Story Keeper we talked about our responsibility as parents to bear and share the stories of our children with them in a way that is truthful, redemptive, and healing. Let’s switch gears now and talk about what it means to be our children’s Story Keeper in the present; now that we’ve worked to share their stories well, we need to help them decide how to own it themselves. We’ll talk about this in a couple of different ways – analog and digital. Let’s start with analog.
Analog is the people we see, the places we go, the conversations we have. It’s the small, fleeting interactions, and the deeper, more involved relationships we have. It’s all the things that we don’t capture in the digital world. It’s real life…school, work, the grocery, church. Analog.
Many of our adopted children are bombarded with questions. Often it’s from other kids who haven’t learned how to ask questions in a diplomatic way yet. It’s simply not an interpersonal skill they have, and in their youth, they don’t know what is and isn’t appropriate. Curious is not the same as malicious. Other times, questions come from other adults, and they are often directed at us parents…right in front of our children. While these may have an understanding of what’s appropriate under most circumstances, they often don’t know how to ask things, so they can be very insensitive.
No matter how you slice it, our children are subject to all kinds of questions. They run the gamut, depending on what our family looks like, how our children come into our family, and when. One of the powerful things we’ve learned is to help our son own his own story, essentially giving him permission NOT to share things he doesn’t want to. Why is this important? Well, even at a young age, our kids can sense a privacy violation; they seem to know that there are just things that strangers don’t need to know about them. However, we’re teaching them to respect their elders and obey us as parents, so our children can feel like they have to answer questions. Giving them strategies for answering with respect while choosing themselves how much to reveal is empowering. Here are some thoughts to help you as you seek to help your child own his or her story, and develop appropriate boundaries around it.
- Talk about it. As Story Keepers, we need to realize that stories are spoken; that means we need to talk about things with our kids. I’ll never forget the day my son was told he was black. When he learned his colors, he could see the difference between black and brown it was clear and obvious to him that he was brown. Fast forward a couple of years as we were riding in the car after he spent some time at a friend’s house. “Mama, David told me I’m black,” he said. “What did you say?” I asked. He shook his head like David was crazy and said, “Well, I told him I’m brown. I’m not black. Black is darker, and it doesn’t have brown in it.” At this point he was laughing at David’s perceived silliness, but wanted to understand why David insisted. He knew David knew his colors. He knew there was more to it. This was a perfect opportunity to tell him that a lot of people call brown people “black” even though they are brown. We also talked about the fact that people are also called “African American” and some Haitian people are called “Haitian American”, while others are simply called “Haitian”. Here’s the important part: I then told him that HE gets to decide what he would like to be called, so that next time a playmate talks about color, he can share that with them. “I will tell people I’m Haitian, Mama,” he decided. Equally important: I said, “Son, I want you to know that you don’t have to tell people anything unless you choose.” Parents, while any of these things can render us broken-hearted almost instantly, we can’t freeze when our kids come to us with the questions, statements, or the insensitivities of others. Talk to them. Ask questions. Find out how they responded and how they felt. This will help you know how to continue the conversation.
- Empower your child. Redirect other adults to your child when the child is in your presence. You’ll know when this is NOT appropriate, but when it is, it can be very empowering for our kids. One good example: people love to touch my son’s hair. Not only does he have an afro, but his hair is very long and tightly coiled. His 8”-10” long coils only appear to be about 2” on his head. It fascinates people. However, this is a major boundary issue. When people reach out to touch his hair, I often will physically position myself in a way that stops them (sometimes this is just a posture change, and other times I simply smile, hold out my hand, and say, “Just a moment, please.”). Then I turn to my son and say, “Son, is it okay if ‘so and so’ touches your hair?” Sometimes he says, “Sure,” and other times he declines. Either way, it sends a very clear message to the person that permission is needed to touch my son’s body, and it sends a clear message to my son that he has my support if he would prefer that someone not touch his head. You can apply this to a lot of questions. When other adults ask questions in your child’s presence, sometimes you’ll simply want to tell them that their question isn’t appropriate. Other times, though, you may find an opportunity to ask your child if that’s something he or she would like to share, or if it’s okay with them if you share it. It puts the power in your child’s hands and that’s a great way to help them own their own story.
- Prepare your child. There are a couple of important areas to do this in. One is in fielding questions. Sometimes our kids come to us to share something that they’ve heard or that someone asked them. When that happens, help your kids by giving them some things they can say. You might even try role playing. I’ve done this with my son and it really raises his confidence. (This doesn’t just apply to adoption questions, either. Try it regarding peer pressure situations – it can give a child strategies for making good choices.) The other area is in that of school assignments. At the beginning of each school year, ask your child’s teacher if there are assignments coming up that year in which your child will be asked to share part of his or her history. Will the children be studying heritage, culture, or biographies? Find out so that if there are conversations you need to have with your child ahead of time, you can do it. For example, I didn’t want my child to first learn about civil rights at school. I wanted to share that part of US history with him first. When you know something is coming up, be involved. Last year, my son was required to write a biography. He was to identify five life events significant to him. It was helpful for him to process together with me the things that he did and did not want to share. Sometimes there are things our kids want to share, but they need help in how they share it so that it’s shared in a way that minimized questions.
Story Keepers keep, but also impart stories to others. So talk about things, empower your child, and prepare your child. These are important ways you can begin to put the story into your child’s hands. You can continue to be a tool of their healing as you talk about aspects of their story that they’re beginning to talk about themselves.
Here’s a really great benefit, too: you’ll learn things about how your child thinks, how he processes things, and how he feels about aspects of his story. I learned a lot about my son’s perspective, for example, based on what details he decided to share in his biography, and what details he specifically didn’t want to share. In the end, being a Story Keeper means we can not only be used to help our kids heal, but we can know them better as well.