Parents talk with young children about the past a lot. We remind them of the last time they saw their cousins. We recall the friendly dog we ran into on last week’s walk (and the not-so-friendly dog from a previous excursion). We tell stories about past birthdays as we look at photos. We reminisce about previous holidays as we pull out decorations once more.
Talking about the past is good for children. It enhances socioemotional and language development. Researchers, however, have discovered that how parents reminisce with young children makes a difference. Having detailed conversations that attend to how children felt at the time is useful for learning to manage emotions. Encouraging children to contribute their own recollections and reflections is also important.
Reminiscing in this kind of elaborative and cooperative way can also help children process and understand their experiences in spiritual terms. Parent-child conversations provide a structure for making sense of what happened. They suggest words that a child might use to describe their spiritual state of being. And they make space for a child to practice managing negative feelings by exploring what caused them and what happened when they expressed them.
Imagine that you and your three year old went for a walk in the woods last week to explore the natural world. Your child had fun jumping in puddles along the path and cringed when a grasshopper jumped on their shoulder. Now your child is a little anxious about future nature hikes. You want to help your child reframe the experience through reminiscing. Here’s how your conversation might go:
Parent: What was the first thing we saw on our walk?
Child: Saw flowers!
Parent: Yes! I liked the flowers. Do you remember what color they were?
Child: White! And pink!
Parent: I felt happy when I saw the flowers. They made me smile.
Child: Me, too – I was happy!
Parent: What happened next on our walk?
Child: I jumped in a puddle.
Parent: You splashed me. I think you liked splashing me. You were laughing.
Parent: And then the grasshopper jumped on your shoulder. You stopped laughing then.
Child: (indignantly) Because the hopper was looking at me. Icky hopper!
Parent: You didn’t like the grasshopper jumping on you. Your eyes got big. I think it surprised you. You didn’t expect it to jump on your shoulder. Why do you think it could jump so high?
Child: It had long legs. And a big jump.
Parent: If we see a grasshopper on our next walk, maybe you can say, “Hi, Long Legs. I have long legs too. Let’s have a jumping contest!”
The parent in this imagined conversation follows all six rules of effective reminiscing:
- Asking questions that elicit details about the past event
- Affirming the child’s contributions to the conversation
- Offering words to describe how parent and child were feeling
- Pointing out indicators of those feelings (smile, laughter, big eyes)
- Sharing possible interpretations for why the child experienced certain feelings
- Suggesting alternative responses
In addition, the conversation reinforces the child’s connection with nature, and the pleasure that can be had interacting with the natural world. It encourages the child to imbue the experience with spiritual meaning while also providing socioemotional language and support.