Telling Them Their Story

Telling Them Their Story

By Rachel Pieh Jones


The twins were three years old when I got the phone call that changed our lives. My husband was at work, out of cell phone range. I don’t remember what the twins were doing. Maybe playing Duplos, maybe gathering limes from the tree out front, maybe chasing the neighbor’s sheep around the yard.

The result of the phone call: we fled the country. My husband rushed home from work, I threw a few items into a small bag, and we sped away from life as we had known it in Somaliland.

In the thirty minutes I had to pack, I walked the twins through the house. They chose their absolute necessities: a yellow fleece blankie and a pink fleece blankie. They chose a couple of books and a toy or two. They said goodbye to the rest: the dollhouse dad had built, their pink and blue mosquito nets, the pictures they had painted with home-made finger paint.

As we drove out of the village in northern Somaliland, I guided the kids through more goodbyes, this time to people: Goodbye Hala, goodbye Deeqa, goodbye Halimo, goodbye Geedi.

The kids had no idea what was going on and thought it was funny to say goodbye to toys and clothes and to people they couldn’t see. They thought it was a game, like ‘see who can pick up the most train tracks the quickest.’ See who can pack a suitcase the quickest. See who can drive over unpaved roads in a mad dash for the airport the quickest. It never crossed their minds to be afraid and that is one of the many things I’m thankful for.

They didn’t ask why we were doing these things, not until later.

Three days later I sat in the bathroom with my daughter. She was crying.

“I want to go home,” she said. “I want to play with Hala. When can I see her again?”

I started crying, too. “We can’t go home, honey,” I said. “And I don’t know if you will ever see Hala again.”*

I held her for a while, on the floor in a guesthouse in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. We didn’t belong in Ethiopia but we couldn’t go back to Somaliland and we weren’t ready to return to the US yet.

“Mommy,” she said, “what happened?”

What happened? How do you tell a three-year old what happened?

“Bad guys did bad things and so we had to leave,” I said. That became our answer. We told her brother the same thing. They heard it, mostly understood it, and forgot about it. I thought.

A few months later in the US I put the kids in the church nursery. When I went to pick them up, the teacher called me aside. She looked uncomfortable.

“Um, your kids told a story during class today,” she said. “They told us they used to live in Somalia but bad guys did bad things and so you had to leave.”

Her voice held the assumption that they were lying but also a question. What kind of 3-year-old comes up with a story like that?

“That’s the truth,” I said.

And that was the end of it. We moved on, physically and emotionally. We have now lived in neighboring Djibouti for over ten years.

About two months ago at lunch my husband and I were talking about a person who had been killed in Somaliland, one of the murders that sparked our sudden flight, and one of the twins said, “Who?”

With that one word, I realized that they had never heard more than ‘bad guys did bad things.’ They still didn’t know what happened. They didn’t know their own story.

I started to tell them about those weeks, back in 2003 in Somaliland. Lunch stretched into an hour, then longer. We talked about the people who had been shot and killed just weeks before we arrived, about how the start of the Iraq war affected our safety, about the woman who had been killed in our village. I told them about hiding out in a hospital for seven days, trying to keep toddlers entertained with no toys, clean with no change of clothes, and fed with no cooking supplies. I told them about the couple shot through the windows of their house, teachers like my husband, like Daddy. That last phone call, the scramble to pack, the goodbyes they thought were a game, crying in the bathroom in Ethiopia. I told them all the names, all the horrible things, all the things we still don’t know, like who shot the woman in our village and why.

I told them the things they didn’t remember or never fully knew. I put words and images to the blurriness of their memories. They asked questions and we followed each random trail to the fullest conclusion we could.

They were fascinated and I was fascinated by their fascination. It was a story of adventure and danger, of survival, of grief and loss, of starting fresh, of creating, losing, then rebuilding a sense of home, of old friends lost and new friends made. It was the story of their past, of what had brought them to this moment in Djibouti. But it was also the story of their present and of all those years in between.

Telling them the story that they couldn’t remember but which belonged to them was like cracking open a space in their self-identity and pouring in the backstory. This is where you came from, this is what brought you to this here and to this now. This is what we once feared and grieved and how we moved forward. This is your story, this is who we are.

*in the intervening years, through a photo I posted alongside an article about Somaliland, we have come into contact again with my daughter’s friend. Yet another thing I am so thankful for.

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children: 14-year old twins and a 9-year old who feel most at home when they are in Africa. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at:Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.

Have I Ever Told You….?  How Sharing Family Stories Helps Our Kids

Have I Ever Told You….? How Sharing Family Stories Helps Our Kids


We were late for school, stuck behind a slow-moving garbage truck, and the kids were bickering loudly over who was to blame. Instead of my usual go-to responses (negotiating peace talks, cranking up the radio, or shouting them down), on this particular morning I thought of a story.

“Have I ever told you about the time my cousins Tim and Pat tricked the garbage men?”

I recounted the story of my cousins mimicking a cranky garbage man’s whistle and triggering the truck to pull forward just as the grump tried to empty a trash can into it. That story led to other well-worn tales of my siblings’ and cousins’ various escapades until, before we knew it, we’d arrived at school.

My kids love hearing family stories, whether I’m describing a funny incident from their own toddler days or recounting some prank that occurred between my siblings thirty years ago.

There’s timeless adolescent humor (one brother dares another to ride down the block in his underwear), the occasional moral takeaway (mom always finds out in the end!), and the pleasure of seeing my kids tease my now-adult siblings at family gatherings.

But it turns out that sharing family stories might give us all a whole lot more.

Not long after I told that story in the car, I heard an interview with author Bruce Feiler, who was talking about resiliency in kids, and research showing correlation between strong kids and how much they knew about their parents’ lives. “The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative, ” Feiler wrote on the topic in the New York Times, discussing something called the “Do-You-Know scale.”

Developed by researcher Marshall Duke and colleagues, the Do-You-Know scale asked kids 20 questions on topics like where their parents had grown up and gone to school, where they’d met, and whether the kids knew stories related to their own or their siblings’ births.

According to Feiler, higher scores on the scale were associated with “higher levels of self-esteem, an internal locus of control (a belief in one’s own capacity to control what happens to him or her), better family functioning, lower levels of anxiety, fewer behavioral problems, and better chances for good outcomes if a child faces educational or emotional/behavioral difficulties. “

Of course, it’s not the information itself that gives kids a boost. It’s everything that happens to make transmitting that knowledge possible. When we share family stories with our kids, we are taking the time to connect with them, and to help them understand that they are part of a larger story. We are teaching them to put their experiences, good and bad, into a larger context.

I think about the family stories I grew up hearing: My mother as a little girl, determined to cut the tags off a new dress herself and snipping a hole in it, and my grandmother sewing it up without an I-told-you-so. My father as a young kid with a newspaper route, tearfully kicking at the door of the family who never paid him, then selling extra papers to make up the loss. Those vivid stories offered me glimpses into who my parents were — and a better understanding of who I was as the daughter they raised.

And what about the not-so-happy stories of the past? The stories of accidents and arguments, of misunderstandings and mistakes? Those stories, it turns out, may be the most important of all — as long as we know how to frame them.

“When faced with a challenge, happy families, like happy people, just add a new chapter to their life story that shows them overcoming the hardship,” Feiler explains. He tells parents: “Create, refine and retell the story of your family’s positive moments and your ability to bounce back from the difficult ones. That act alone may increase the odds that your family will thrive for many generations to come.”

Reading about the Do-You-Know scale and the work of Marshall Duke, I immediately started ticking off stories from my family’s history, and my husband’s, that I know my children can already retell. And I made a mental list of others that I’ll make a point to share.

Who would have imagined, on that stressful morning, that a brother-and-sister-blowout on an already-late-for-school day could have such a positive ripple effect?

(See that? Already I’m learning to frame our stories differently.)

Photo credit: Megan Dempsey