Updated: Aug 28, 2022
Do you know your personal history?
In the early 20th century, compulsory public schooling shifted away from history and transitioned to what we currently call social studies.
In 1918, the National Education Association (NEA) outlined that specified behaviours, health and vocational training were the central goals of education. This was a shift away from mental and character development, as well as training in critical thinking. They felt that the educational focus should be on the needs of our collective economic future, and they devalued the benefit of history; or any careful consideration of the past.
An effect of this generational shift? The Canadian Mental Health Association tells us that suicide is the second leading cause of death in students between the ages of 15-24. Children are ill-equipped to cope with the pressures and experiences in life. While some children are managing to get by, others are not. Despite controversial world events and politics, wars waging and poverty, all opportunities to provide children with an objective glimpse into the struggles of life, we shield our children, concerned that they are too mentally fragile to understand. So where do we start?
The best first step is through stories. Fables and folklore. Give them heroes who have fallen to rise again, who have suffered but have vanquished. Give your children an opportunity to experience struggle through a story, to ask their questions and to start to build their language around not only pain, grief, and sorrow, but also courage, bravery and integrity. Stories help us build a bridge between our own nature, foreign and alien to us as children, and the different natures of other people in this shared society that we have collectively constructed.
Learn your family history. Read more stories. Preferably the fables and folklore written in the 19th century or earlier. Children’s stories have only recently become void of real human struggle in the 20th and 21st centuries. Fables and folklore give you the forum to lay the ground work for character development. Some examples that come to mind include Greek Mythology, African Folklore; Hansel and Gretel, and Little Red Riding Hood. I read them again as an adult and am mindful of the woods at dusk for a little while after. That’s the effect you want. Every culture has their own fables and folklore, so don’t limit yourself. These types of stories were constructed to shape your child’s character, strengthen them mentally, and provide them a foundation from which to build emotional awareness.
Children experience stories differently from adults. They get absorbed in the narrative and their little bodies embody the experience, the drama and the emotions of the characters. Storytelling provides a safe environment where you can teach your children the frame, the language and the appropriate responses to the emotions that these stories elicit; leveraging the safety and objectivity of the fictitious third-party characters. Stories allow you to expand your child’s mental and character development, while nourishing their emotional quotient.
Emotions are complex. Varying life experiences trigger different emotions, some of which we may have never felt before. Emotions are not restricted to a given age category, and children are still learning how to articulate their basic emotions to get the support they need. In time, they develop a grasp of language and a growing exposure to situations, either personally or through anecdotes, that help them identify their emotions and determine what direction to take.
Stories have a quiet power to help your child grow strong, feel capable and have a point of reference to manage through life's toughest challenges. Folk tales from before the 20th century were rich and vibrant, filled with real life difficulty and strife, and they served to enrich the emotional vocabulary and create visceral realities in which children experience the stress and excitement that may resurface later in life. Stories give them a window into what life holds for them to experience. As parents, you hope that your child won’t get exposed to pain or hardship - but at least you can rest assured that they will be better equipped if you’ve given them some training beforehand.
The thing about “child readiness” is that it crumbles against the backdrop of life. Life doesn’t wait. Children are struggling to adapt when confronted with bullying, abuse, the loss of a parent/sibling, or any other of the countless traumas that stand to impact your children before they develop the intellectual and cognitive capacity to cope. Children of our generation rarely have anything to anchor to help them navigate life experiences without it negatively impacting their self-concept.
Disney fails to provide fictional realities that prepare children for every day life. The worst problems your daughters and sons will face exceed the challenges of the vapid yet chivalrous prince, or the submissive and helpless princess. Exposure to stories that involve highs and lows, tragedy, sorrow and elation; stories that have enough depth to allow you to chart a large variety of emotions back to language. We need well constructed stories with beauty and light, with darkness and tragedy, to help us find the words to see ourselves. Disney doesn’t cut it.
Another great avenue is learning your personal history. Each individual is a physical representation of many paths and pasts. There is something profound about existing that is sometimes lost on us. Many have not made it to this moment, will not have an opportunity to read these words, and to further explore the meaning of life. It took many generations of intention for each of us to be here, many stories, most long forgotten.
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