The Stories We Help Our Children Weave
I’m sure for many of us, our family stories are rich, varied, and often conflicting. We share our pasts with our children often without reflection of what they do not know and are surprised when there are gaps in what they know about us, about our lives as a family. I know that it’s often surprising to me personally to realize that there are vast stretches of years that I feel I recall well that my bright boy has no recollection of, even though he was there.
Just yesterday, I had a reminder that although we’ve spent more than two decades together that there are experience we did indeed share together that are no longer shared. It’s a bit disconcerting at time to realize that past events that are flashbulb bright to me even nine years later are completely nonexistent for him. I could have discussed this with my son yesterday when I realized this latest lack of connection, but instead let it rest, choosing to enjoy the reminder that memories differ, that some events stand out more to some of us, and that the fragility of our constructed realities is something to be amazed at.
It’s become a pattern now that on Fridays that Bobby and I do the shopping together and that we grab lunch while out. Yesterday, I was not intending to eat out, though. He brought it up on our way home, so I asked him, remembering an incident from when he was 12 as clear as if it happened yesterday, if Arby’s was good for him, expecting him to sputter and gack and say no way in hell. Instead, he was immediately excited about it, talking about how he’d eaten there before on a field trip at the center. Hah, well, there you go. I remember distinctly that when he was 12 he absolutely refused to eat the sandwich we’d bought him at Arby’s, and the hour long battle that ensued when we insisted he eat the sandwich he’d picked out. Obviously, he has no memory of this, and I saw no point to raise it with him. Instead, I chuckled, got him his sandwich, and we had a lovely afternoon. He got his meal with me, and I got a reminder that people change over time.
In a new study, Sirota (2010) approaches how children deal with their autism from the perspective of “personal life narrative as a self-shaping transformative process” (543). Autistic individuals have difficulties with communication, so the narrative strategies we routinely incorporate in our daily lives may be more difficult for those with communication impairments. According to Sirota, “Narrative co-participation – which relies upon an amalgam of social–emotional, communicative, and sensory integration capacities” can make it difficult for children with autism to engage in it (545).
Sirota followed 17 children on the spectrum and their families, with findings taken “from a corpus that includes 276 hours of naturalistic video- and audio-taped data, collected in conjunction with ethnographic participant-observation research designed to document and explore the children’s everyday family lives.3 These data chronicle family members’ ongoing participation in daily activities. In addition, discourse data include family members’ spontaneously narrated reflections on the events and circumstances of their lives” (546). In this process, Sirota notes that “Study participants took active steps to position children with autistic spectrum disorders as moral protagonists in the narrative recounting of their everyday lives. Family members employed the narrative genre to scaffold children’s involvement in techniques of self-reflection and self-awareness, most particularly as uncertain futures and unknown potentials loomed prominently in this regard. Children were thereby encouraged to take stock of themselves as well as to calibrate, and to reshape, their self-appraisals, emotions, and outward behaviors with respect to a set of normative standards” (549).
Families build their shared pasts together; dialogues between family members shape each member’s recollections of past events. In order for a family to be cohesive, this shared dialogue allows for the smoothing over of rough edges, of memories that don’t align (or the dismissal of the importance of these differences). It’s reasonable to conjecture that those family members who feel disconnected from their family grouping often have memories that are in contradiction to the group memory, causing friction between members. Siblings will instantly recognize this jockeying for the supremacy of their own interpretations of past events.
In order to learn who we are, we share in frequent exchanges with family members who help us find our place in the community, both at the private, family level and in the larger community. Who we are is often described in comparison to other family members whom community members know as well. When we leave our home and community of origin, we leave behind these trappings of identity and are able to explore who we would want to be if we got to do the defining. It’s one of the reasons that going off to college after high school can be so liberating and why finding a high school mate at the same college can be a bit of a bummer, as that recrystalization of personality will be all the harder with someone around to remind you of who you are perceived to be.
Sirota asserts that “Conversational narrative provides a venue for problem solving, recollection, and the building of social alliances, as competing perspectives are aired and uncertainties are explored in an effort to derive jointly defined understandings and outcomes” (547). Indeed, as I’ve discussed above from a psychological perspective, “conversational narrative may serve to reaffirm existing beliefs, identities, and orientations or to instantiate social processes that may question, reinterpret, and re-invent social identities, perspectives, and moral frames” (548).
Children without autism or other communication impairments may more readily participate in co-narration, and so more easily fit themselves seamlessly into the overall family narrative. As parents to autistic children, we often need to take a more deliberate role in helping our children to learn how to narrate, how to engage in the give and take of family life.
Many of us have children who take honesty to a whole new level beyond what neurotypical children typically engage in. Our children may be extremely rigid in their belief systems and unwilling to compromise. In these instances, hammering away at them is not likely to make them sway their position. Nor is it something we should want to do. We should not want to browbeat our children into conformity for conformity sake. And once we know the malleability of memories, forcing a consensus of interpretation on past events seems to me a complete waste of time. We build our lives moment by moment, erasing those moments that do not fit into our present narrative smoothly. Instead, perhaps we could teach that where we differ in interpretation of past events, we can leave it alone; what matter is the present, this moment, and what comes next.
Our focus should be to help our children find their own place in this world, one in which they feel comfortable with who they really are, not who we wish they were. This is not an easy task for any parent.
I have read many parents who cast the issues autism brings to their lives as scourges; their posts read as endless litanies of regret, frustration, anger, depression, futility, disgust. I hope that their blogs represent places they blow off steam, saving their positive emotions for the real world; I hope that it is not all there is to their stories, because there is no way one can feel this way about autism without projecting the negativity onto the child, casting the child in the role of all that is bad about the family. Think of the co-narrative being built there and how harmful it is to the child and the family as a whole. Autism isn’t necessary, though, for a child to be cast in the role of all that is wrong with a family. We have all known children, I am sure, who have been placed in this position and how poisonous it is for the child’s well-being.
We cannot always change the situation, the real-life issues we must face with our children, the disappointment that they must struggle so when we love them and honor them and wish for them only joy and success, the fear we have over their present and over their future, the very real physical exhaustion we often deal with.
We can, however, reframe our narrative so that instead of seeing only the hardships we as parents must confront because of our children’s issues, we see it as a journey we take with our children together for both their sake and our own, so that the identities we weave for our children and ourselves see us not as victims and vanquished but instead as pilgrims on a quest to learn and grow, and heck, maybe even achieve some enlightenment, if that’s our cup of tea.
Sirota, Karen Gainer. “Narratives of transformation: Family discourse, autism and trajectories of hope.”
doi: 10.1177/0957926510373992 Discourse Society September 2010 vol. 21 no. 5 544-564.