Raising Kids With Character

Beware the Narrative You Write for Your Children

  • Thom Van Dycke, Author
  • Speaker, coach, writer

Kids are cruel.

I remember when two friends told me in grade 5 that I walked like a girl. It bothered me for months. I remember walking down the hallways of Parc La Salle school trying to walk differently than what came naturally to me.

I suspect it might have given more ammo to my classmates.

Amazing how those kinds of statements stick with us, isn’t it?

I remember how much our daughter hated being referred to as a foster kid. As soon as she could get away from that label she did. (We actually rarely differentiate between the children born into our home or who are adopted or in foster care, because quite frankly, they are all our children. It was just a bit tougher with Caitie because we really weren’t old enough to have a 15 year-old in our home… and then there was the fact that she’s Asian…)

I have friends who have experienced the pain of racism and can tell you about the psychological prison that forms around them.

But do you know who has the greatest power to label a kid? Parents.

Parents are simply the most influential identity-forming voices in a child’s life – for good or bad!

Do something for me, take a minute from reading and just think back to your childhood and bring up a memory when a parent said something harsh (or which you interpreted as harsh) that stuck with you.

“Maybe don’t eat that, I think the sugar is starting to show.” In other words, “You’re fat.”

“I can’t believe you failed that math test, you know this stuff.” Or, “You’re stupid.”

“You’re our best hitter. How could you have missed that pitch?” “You’re a failure.”

What did those words become to you? If you are anything like me, they became an internal dialogue or script that ran through your mind every time you looked in the mirror or sat at your desk staring at a test or stepping up to the plate in baseball.

As parents, we need to be mindful of this. The words we speak to our children (including the looks which communicate without words), become the narrative of their lives!

I’ve met with many adults whose lives fell apart during adolescence because of something that was said to them, often repeatedly. Eating disorders. Failed relationships. Chronic anxiety. All of these became the narrative of their lives; a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts.

This is why I caution parents about calling their children “liars.” I have a high value of truth-telling, but if I call my child a liar, that is a very difficult label to shed. It becomes part of their identity, essentially I can ensure they do become a life-long liar by flippantly throwing that label around.

But this is the great thing, our influencing power doesn’t end with negative words. We can also speak life-giving words to our children!

Instead of focusing on the lie that I so loathe, I can reward the truth they tell.

Instead of focusing on the pitch they missed, I can focus on the way they handled defeat like a champion.

Instead of focusing on a failed math test, I can celebrate their increasing marks in carpentry.

And instead of saying anything about sugar, or their body, I can just shut up.

Do me another favour, take a minute, just 60 seconds, and write a list of the life-giving words that you have been given throughout your life, from parents, or other people in your life. And then think of ways to change the narrative of your life where it has become overly negative.

Perhaps you can write them on notes to stick to your mirror. Perhaps you can write a thank-you note to the person who possibly doesn’t even realize that they influenced your life like this.

But you are clever and creative person, so give it your own unique spin!

Thom Van Dycke has worked with children and youth since 2001 and is a passionate advocate for healthy foster care. Together with his wife, since 2011, they have welcomed 30 foster children into their home. In 2017, Thom Van Dycke was trained as a Trust-Based Relational Intervention Practitioner.