Telling life stories to teach kids about life

Many parents worry all the time about their children's future.

What jobs will they have in the future? How much will they earn? Whom will they marry? Which enrichment classes should they take?

That is why so many parents push their kids so hard for good grades, in the hope that they will fulfil the ideal scenario of coming into wealth and owning a nice condominium.

No, I do not worry about the future of my two kids - a Secondary 2 son and a Primary 6 daughter. I am more concerned about not being able to tell my kids my life stories that they need to hear before they enter the working world.

It is my way of transmitting my values and our family history to them, of preparing them for the uncertain future with people they have yet to meet, without being naggy or instructional.

Perhaps I should explain that I have long been a storyteller - I worked as a photojournalist and editor for many years and know that stories are one of the best ways to bring a point home and ensure it sticks for a long time.

Even when I moved from editorial to marketing jobs, my daily work revolved around creating interesting and authentic stories to drive sales.

When I look back at my own childhood days, my mother was too busy making ends meet as a single parent. Due to my teenage angst and her reticence, we spoke little to each other, and when she died from cancer at 59, I realised there was so much of her life I did not know about.

What kind of people did she have to deal with? What decisions did she regret? How should I chart my career? It was too late for that.

So now that I have stepped into her shoes as a parent, it is important for me to get home daily in time for dinner.

It is at the dining table that I have the kids' undivided attention. They are not distracted by their mobile phones and the act of eating also ensures they are not squabbling with each other.

They tell me about the major incidents of the day and the issues created by teachers and classmates. I then dig into my archives and it is never difficult to find a tale to match theirs.

Biased teachers who favour one student all the time? Why, I knew one manager who kept pushing a colleague for job promotions even though her work output was miserably low. She had no real friends and her manager was poorly respected in the office. Quite unlike another colleague who rose through the ranks quickly by producing stellar business results.

Student hauled up to the principal's office for lying? Hmm, I knew another colleague in a previous company who lied all the time and was eventually fired when his side dealings were uncovered. It took his team years to clean up his mistakes with other business partners.

Classmates amazed that Donald Trump could become the United States President? Well, here is another perspective - why would ordinary people vote for him? Was it because they were at their wits' end about their livelihood? Or did they like his showmanship?

Storytelling does not just describe the different people we will get to meet some day. I like to talk about how the economy works too.

Why did the new hawker food stall close down so quickly at the Bishan foodcourt? Well, let me share how my friend invested in a chicken rice food stall and how it failed because of high rental, lack of willing employees and inconsistent customer foot traffic.

Whether it is solving difficult business problems or managing egos, I do not shy away from these topics even if the kids are too young to understand them fully.

I tell them: "The most important thing is that I have told you my stories. One day when you are an adult, I hope you will remember them when you need them to guide you."

History often repeats itself and many young people do not realise their 21st-century troubles are nothing new. And you won't find my stories in a school textbook or at a tuition centre.

Yes, we might be undergoing a massive disruption in jobs and the economy now, but disruptions have happened throughout history - this one just seems particularly brutal due to the speed of change caused by technology and globalisation.

What remains constant, though, is how people react to change - they either embrace or fear change. The more true stories they know about success and failure, the better they can deal with change.

My kids may roll their eyes at the dinner table, but I roll my eyes back at them and say: "You wait and see. When the time comes, I will say I told you this story before."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 12, 2017, with the headline 'Telling life stories to teach kids about life'. Print Edition | Subscribe