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Editorial Archives
From Garth Sundem in Free Spirit Publishing: “On the surface, using words to influence memories is a nifty trick. But what psychologist Elizabeth Loftus’ work about the formation of false memories really shows is that the stories we tell ourselves after an experience are as important as the experience itself in how we understand it. For example, the story we tell ourselves about being lost in the woods can transform the experience from an ordeal into an adventure. Was that math test hard, or was it challenging? The event itself is only a starting point. It’s the story we tell ourselves about the event that defines how we understand it and what we take from it. You’ve heard this before: Stories define our realities. Our stories may even define our identities.

I can see this in action. My son, Leif, is 12, and I can see him trying out different stories as he searches for his identity. For example, he’s a good rock climber, but I recently heard him say, “I’m not very strong, but I’m good at figuring out tricky moves.” For better or worse, this story influences his identity and helps define what he sees as possible. And I hear Leif’s coaches trying to help him change his story from “I’m bad at climbs that require strength,” to “I’m still learning how to be good at climbs that require strength.” The first story defines identity and possibility; the second seeks to change it.

But it is not only our own stories—our interpretations, framing, and evaluation of the things we experience—that shape our identities. Others’ stories also show us what is possible for our own lives. This is one reason (of many) that it can be hard to break cycles of poverty—the life stories surrounding a child influence that child’s expectations and menu of possibilities for his or her own life.

However, if stories of hopelessness and loss shrink kids’ possibilities, then stories of resilience and triumph can help expand them. The fact that Salva Dut led children through the desert to escape the civil war in South Sudan makes it seem more possible for kids to overcome their own challenges. The fact that the “Boys in the Boat” emerged from the Great Depression to win the gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics makes any dream seem possible. The fact that Jackie Robinson was able to withstand blatant racism to integrate baseball makes it seem possible for kids to persevere in their own lives.

It is not just the stories we tell ourselves, but also the stories we are told—through the examples around us or by culture, media, and more—that shape the possibilities of our identities. Just like adjusting the interpretation of a car crash (from Loftus’ research) can change how people remember the event, the right stories can help kids see their lives in new ways.”