Talking to Children (chapter 2)

Prologue: Several weeks ago I reflected on what parents should or should not tell their children regarding “problematic” subjects of parental sensitivity (“Talking to Children”: This time the topic is more “benign” – the need to offer autobiographical details.

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 If there is one major thing that I regret regarding the relationship I had with my father, Arthur Wilzig, it is that he almost never talked about his youth and early adulthood – and being a teenager, of course I never asked. In fact, most of what I do know about the Cuba years and thereafter was told to me by my mother. There’s an object lesson here.

Children are naturally inquisitive. But there seems to be a blind spot in their questioning: although they want to know about virtually everything in their world, they seem to be naturally uncurious about their parents’ past! Perhaps that has to do with the fact that young kids have a problem even envisioning their parents as children or anything other than grown adults. In any case, as I’ve found from talking to many friends, once the children become adults themselves and their parents may no longer be alive it turns into one of the bigger regrets of their life.

To be sure, parents can’t just sit their kids down and lecture to them about the parent’s past. Nevertheless, there are all sorts of opportunities in which that sort of information can be made interesting to the child. For example, when coming across something new or recently modern with the kid in tow, the parent can point out: “that didn’t exist in my day” or “instead, we had to do, or deal with…” – and from there can easily segue into a description of some aspect of the parent’s early life.

Nor does this kind of retelling have to be done in some kind of chronological order. Children really don’t care exactly what age the parent did something, i.e., they are not little historians! As long as each story or anecdote/event/vignette make some cohesive sense, and the parent offers a general ballpark age, the child will eventually put the “chapters” together in their approximate chronology.

Why is this important? Given the growing interest in DNA heritage – what percent do we belong to this, that and/or the other ethnic/racial/tribal/national group – the social history of our father, mother, and their fore-parents is but the other side of the same coin. Humans naturally want to know from whence they came – biologically and historically-collectively. True, given the digitization of archival records around the world, it is somewhat easier today to find information about the “recent” (post-19th century) past. However, this is mostly dry data: birthdates, names, towns, and in rarer cases some other types of information, e.g., school records. What we really seek are the flesh-and-blood stories of our progenitors: what were they like (personality)? what did they do? what did they look like? in what way might we be like some of them?

This does not mean that parents will be forthcoming with all the information they know. There could be a black sheep in the family – the less said the better. A parent might have undergone some serious trauma – again, discretion is the better part of (their) valor. This was a particular problem with Holocaust survivors, but not only them.

When my son Avihai was around six years old, instead of reading to him a bedtime book I started telling him what we called “Sammy stories” – taken straight out of my memory. In fact, the present series of my “Reflections” memoirs could be considered a direct continuation of that experience, just some “levels” higher.

Perhaps the best reason for a parent to provide information within some past social context is the opportunity to “model” growing up. All children look up to their parents for “guidance” as to how to deal with the world. Of course, actions tend to speak louder than words, but words do carry weight as well – especially when they are about the parents’ actions when they were the same age. Education need not be just sitting down to help with our kids’ homework; “informal” education sometimes is even more important, especially when it involves “socialization” – how to behave, how to react to challenges, how to control one’s emotions, and so on. “When-I-was-a -kid” stories make at least as strong an impact as straightforward lecturing around the dinner table.

Again, the initiative has to come from the parent. Yes, some kids will be bored; others fascinated; and most mildly interested, depending on the way it’s told and what it’s about. But rest assured, even if today they don’t fully appreciate these “roots” excursions, they certainly will later in life.

One final note: whatever I said here goes double for grandchildren! They are two generations away (imagine explaining a rotary phone to contemporary digital natives); grandparents are perceived as being “wiser” than parents; and they certainly have more time and patience for such family storytelling. Although I would not overdo this next point, but a few stories from grandparents about their own children – the kids’ parents and uncles/aunts – will definitely grab their attention!

May we all get to be great-grandparents (I’m sure we are, or will be, great grandparents), to regale dozens of our progeny – the real route to roots.

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