In the words of Dr. Brene Brown, “When we deny our stories, they define us, but when we own our stories, we get to write a brave new ending…with courage that starts with letting ourselves be seen.”
Dad, there is power in letting yourself be seen and known by your daughter as you tell her stories from your life.
By opening up with her, it lets her know that you’re human, that you’ve made mistakes (and continue to make them), that you’re authentic and real and “normal” (whatever that means!).
This basically translates to moving from lecturing and teaching mode to an “I’m letting you know more about me” mode.
The telling of your story can also include lessons you’ve learned along the way, which is a strategic way to form a bond between you as the speaker and your daughter as the listener. By taking off your mask (the one that is self protective and keeps people from really knowing you), you are letting her know who you really are--flaws and all.
Though I’m not saying that your daughter should be your confidant and therapist, I am saying that she can be a catalyst to you choosing to open up your heart and your emotions out of love for her. This will be a gift to her…and yourself.
To provide confirming evidence for what I’m saying, here’s a positive story-telling experience between me and my dad, Jim:
If my dad is anything like you, you probably don’t think that your life is all that interesting. My dad has told me on more than one occasion that because he doesn’t find his life story all that interesting, he’s never thought to share much of it with me…until the last few years, that is.
I have the best memory from about 15 years ago when the movie Chicago first came out. When this movie showed up in theaters, I wanted to see it, but I can assure you that this is not the kind of movie my dad goes to…ever! He’s a Sci-fi-adventure-shoot-‘em-up movie watcher. But because my mom was out of town that weekend, my dad took me my sister Liz to the theater, which prompted our idea to make it a “Chicago themed night.” After the movie we ate dinner at Chicago Pizza, and it was there that my dad told us stories of growing up in Chicago.
He told us about the extreme poverty he grew up with and about his alcoholic dad, then he shared more about what it was like to have three different last names among the seven kids, followed with details of how he worked from the time he was six years old helping his older brothers with their paper routes. Then he told us the story of asking a neighbor boy’s dad to help him build a shoe shine box, and although he was only ten years old and very shy, he had the guts to sneak into a dozen different bars on Vincennes Avenue to shine shoes “under the table” (literally and figuratively!). He made great money as he “bar-hopped,” due in large part to the generosity of wealthy Mr. Lieberman, who would pay five dollars a pop for a job well done. But eventually my dad would be discovered and then get kicked out, only to head to the next bar down the street.
I learned more about my dad’s childhood that night than ever before, and my sister and I absolutely loved It! And it stands out as one of my favorite nights ever with my dad.
I can honestly say that I’m richer for it because this is part of my history as well. The reality is that these stories would be lost forever if they weren’t passed down from my dad to us girls since they’re not written down anywhere. It’s like he’s a walking history book about his family and life in the 1930’s, 40’s, and 50’s.
The other benefit is that the stories my dad chooses to tell about his life give me more understanding, empathy, even grace, for who he is now as they help me know him better. They lead me to have more compassion in those times when I get irked at him because then I recall what he went through, particularly the lack of support, encouragement, money, confidence, or even attentive parents.
Summing up: The more real that my dad is with me, the more real he becomes to me. And I then see him through a reality lens where he’s human (not a superhero), which helps me to accept his limitations because I understand his backstory.
If you’re ready to share more of your life story with your daughter, I suggest three ways to go about doing it.
OPTION 1: If you want the fast-get-to-the-point version, here it is:
Tell her what happened. (at a certain age or in a specific place)
Tell her what you learned. (include positive learning experiences, as well as lessons learned the hard way)
Invite her to ask questions. (choose to be honest and open in ways that are age-appropriate and that stretch you to grow in vulnerability)
OPTION 2: If you want to share something new that you haven’t told her before, start with:
One positive/happy story: (about vacations, jobs, adventures, educational or athletic experiences, volunteer opportunities, etc.)
One accomplishment/exploit: (achievements or awards, risks you’ve taken, feats of strength, endurance ventures, goals achieved, etc.)
One unwise/stupid decision: (such as a physical, financial, or relational choice that didn’t go the way you had thought, planned or hoped it would.)
Now here’s a time when me and my dad had a less than positive story-telling experience:
I still remember the time about 20 years ago when I randomly asked my dad if he remembered how old he was when he first had sex. I hadn’t ever thought to ask the question prior to that moment when the question popped into my head, so I asked it. My dad’s intense response completely caught me off guard, and had I known the question would be so offensive to him, tucked inside with ‘no trespassing’ sign on it, I never would have asked it.
In response, my dad loudly asserted, “Michelle, why would you ask such a question?!!”
Clearly I had crossed an invisible line, one that left me feeling like I’d committed the unpardonable sin by asking it. But I honestly had no idea this theme would turn out to be a land mine issue for him. So the only response I could muster was simply this, “Dad, I asked the question because I wanted to know more about your life. That’s all...honest.”
Maybe you can relate to my dad in not wanting to open the internal vault of your life to your daughter.
Fast forward to more recently when my dad shared his thoughts about his struggle to be transparent with me: “Michelle, sometimes when you’ve asked me questions, I guess the hardest part is that I haven't always told you everything. It’s not that I don’t tell you a lot, but there are things that are way too personal or embarrassing that I wouldn't have even told my mother, let alone my daughter. These are actions I've been ashamed of and choices that were absolutely wrong and that I should have been in jail for, but all of this shows the amazing redemption God offers each of us, and especially me, in changing a life that was going nowhere.”
It was extremely helpful for me to hear these words because I didn’t know what I didn’t know. But my dad knew what he hadn’t told me and that was where things got tricky. And even though I assured him that I wouldn’t judge him, affirming that I simply wanted to know more of his real life story, I discovered that we were on different pages and I had to meet him at the place where he was comfortable sharing since it was his story to tell.
OPTION 3: If you’re ready to be challenged to go into more depth with telling your story, here is another model you can use. And though this will take more time and effort on the front end, it will guide you through this process. You can prepare by writing out the story before your dad-daughter date or you can create a list of bullet point list so that you have an overview when you get together.
Here is a detailed, yet organized way to share more of your story:
1. Tell about your life chronologically: One year at a time.
Tell one thing from each age of your life…as many as you can think of. And if your daughter has questions, let her “ask away,” as my dad has invited me to do.
2. Tell about your life seasonally: One occasion at a time.
My dad would often tell me stories that corresponded with the current time of year that we were in, whether it was a holiday memory or a weather-related story or about traditions with food at that certain time of year, etc.
3. Tell about your life experientially: One topic at a time.
For this one you can think in broad topical categories, ranging from your family of origin and what it was like to be in your family to education, job, sports, friends, girlfriends, dating, adventures, risks, etc. The list is endless.
4. Tell about your life spiritually: One theme at a time.
Let her hear about significant times you’ve had in your relationship with God. Talk about lessons you're learning spiritually and about parts of the Bible that are particularly meaningful to you. Be honest about questions or doubts you’ve had in the past, or even now. Tell her about any momentous retreat, camp, or conference experiences you’ve had. And share about music that’s impacted you, and/or any other times you’ve connected to God through your senses or nature.
5. Tell about your life relationally: One person at a time.
As you tell her about various people who have influenced you throughout your life, this is not only a way of honoring those people, but you will be positively impacted by recalling the influence and impact of mentors, coaches, pastors, teachers, relatives, and on it goes. Share what they’ve taught you and why those lessons had value to you then…and now.
I started this blog with a quote from Brene Brown and it seems only fitting to end with another of her wise statements: “Authenticity is not something we have or don’t have. It’s a practice---a conscious choice of how we want to live. Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.”
Dad, I trust that you’ll take a step this week to let your true self be seen by telling your daughter one thing about your life that you’ve never told her before.Just watch how she responds.
Let the story telling begin!