Let Your Student Narrate Their Own Story

Everyone has a story. This story has a past, present, and future.

In the early years, you and other adults are the authors of your child’s story. You hold the pen and choose the story’s setting, the characters that they interact with, the overall theme, learning opportunities, and conflict resolutions. At this point, your child is a somewhat “passive” reader of their story. At a young age they do not yet possess the mental, emotional or physical capabilities to be on their own and make important decisions. At this very young age, the narrative of your child’s story is being formed. As they grow older, they will use this narrative as a foundation to begin to author their own story.

As the early teenage years arrive, your child attempts to control their story. They seek to take pencil in hand and write the next paragraph. Sometimes this manifests itself in “pushing the line” as they try to incorporate their family’s background into their nascent narrative voice. They may author the next sentence or paragraph. However, they have not yet been promoted to “executive editor,” a position we typically maintain as the original author(s). They write their story, but we oversee it and ensure that it develops within particular literary guidelines. If they author a situation that places them in danger or conflict, as “executive editor” we revise the story to safeguard them from harm. It’s during this time that conflict as well as independent foundational relationships start to form. This is to be expected as there are multiple first-time authors penning their stories and some narratives will inevitably run into each other. At this point as “executive editor”, we attempt to teach the new author how to be nimble and flexible in their writing and that a great story often emerges from a “re-write.” It’s also when the author begins to realize that their story is just one story among many.

As our child enters their high school years, their talent as an author improves. However, they still need “executive editors” (even if they won’t admit it). One’s teachers, coaches, religious leaders and others become increasingly important contributing editors as well. As the emerging author, your child has the ability to write parts of their story that we editors may never see. On those occasions, we must rely on the foundational narrative we helped create many years ago. Our young author has matured; their grammar has expanded; and their style is becoming their own (albeit some of our original prose remains). While the editor still has an eraser, the author has opportunities to write in pen. This is when the permanency of the story begins to take hold.

As they become “college student”, they receive a blank piece of paper. At this point, those of us that have been instrumental in their story can only wait to hear them read it back to us. As the original authors, we hope that our child as the author shares their draft before submitting final content. But if they choose not to, we must realize that this is their story now. While we can still make suggestions and recommend edits, they now wield the pen.

One truly sees this during the student’s first long break back home. When they walk through the front door of the family home, you are so excited to see them.  But you will notice a change. You may not be exactly sure what it is, but it’s there. They too will sense it. This is when you both recognize that your roles in crafting their story are different. This becomes increasingly apparent as the break progresses. The young adult, who previously would get up by 7 a.m., now decides that the day starts at 11am (or vice versa). Clean clothes are now “optional.” Bedtime is 3 a.m. There is unlikely to be a text or call letting you know when they will be home. And when you inquire, they “logically respond, “If I was at UMass you wouldn’t know what I was doing or when I was coming back.” The discussion now proceeds along the lines of, “you are now attempting to write in my studio. Consideration is required.”

Your student likely realizes that a new chapter in their story has begun. Life went on at home while they were in Amherst. High school friends, while still close, have been writing their own story. Your student may have changed from main character to supporting cast member in the stories of some of their friends. At the same time, rather than serving as just a key player in your narrative, you recognize them as the leading character in their own story.  You can no longer seize the pencil. Rather than hampering their unique “literary style” try to:

  • Be a guiding voice, an interested and engaged reader
  • Share knowledge based on your story, but always remember it is THEIR story (and what a wonderful story it will be!)
  • Praise their victories, commiserate over their losses, and remind them that you would stand in line for three days in the rain to be first in line to buy their book.

Finally, remember you are not alone. There is a club of concerned, potentially anxious and proud original authors available to help. It’s called the UMass Amherst Parents Association. We are all going through this transition.  Think of us as a “book club” here for each other. We’ll always have a voice in our students’ stories, but just not control of the pencil.  As Robert Ballard stated, “Follow your own passion – not your parents’ – not your teachers’ – yours”. This is the narrative journey you’ve prepared your student for.  Congratulations. You did a GREAT job!

Brian Brady is the parent of a former UMass Amherst student and a former member of the UMass Amherst Parents Advisory Council.