Autobiography: Why you need to have one.

Not all parents, who wish the best for their children, manage to be the parents they want to be. Hindsight is often 20/20 and it can be hard to look at the consequences of our parenting and say… “I wish I had known”, or, “I wish I had done it differently.”

Yesterday, the Hare made a lovely trail of pine-needles from our front door to our backdoor…that is through two conservatories, the lounge, the dining room and the kitchen. It was about half a metre wide. That’s a lot of pine-needles. Now, most years I have found pine-needles in the house until about June, because of their amazing ability to get everywhere. So this year I’d cleverly (!) put the Christmas Tree in the front conservatory – away from carpet. So when I saw what he had done, I lost the plot, for about two seconds. Then realised that he was being a child in the moment and had no idea of my agenda. We started tidying together, but I had to get dinner on – it was already late, Craig was due home, the Owl needed an early night  and the Butterfly was getting grumpy. So, while I worked with him as much as I could – largely he was left to tidy up himself. He didn’t like it. It became a power struggle. In the end, I really lost my temper and broke the broom.

(Now, its not a flash broom and it was getting pretty manky, but it was useful.)

I managed to reconnect with him after we’d had a bit of time apart and he certainly went to bed calm and to sleep quickly, which is always a good indicator that things are back on track. However, I can’t help wishing I’d handled it better. I know there are parents out there who can remain calm in the face of stress and frustration, embarrassment and defiance – and it’s not a farce. But there are a lot more of us who aren’t those people. Have we scarred our children for life? Are their personalities irrevocably set toward temper tantrums and aggression?

Well yes and no. Environment matters, but birth temperament certainly plays a role in our personality. Hares are naturally all about leadership and they are always going to be more likely to be involved in power struggles. Yes, what we do does affect  our children – but not (usually) in one off occurrences. The impact of us on them is in the general tone of our parenting.

There are two keys to minimising the impact of our ‘stuff’ on our children’s lives. One is the reconnection phase: after it’s all over, are the children able to make calm eye-contact; are they calm in their demeanor; do they speak slowly; are they able to burn off their aggression physically, that sort of thing.  The other is their ability to make sense of us. From about age two, all we have to do is have a couple of times a week, instead of a book story at night, tell them their day story… You got up, you really enjoyed your banana and toast for breakfast, we played hide and go seek and we laughed when I tried to hide in the washing basket… that sort of thing. Always including the emotional tags, but never including – this will help you make sense of your life! For an older child (say nine or 10 on), you can include things like: we followed bad advice; I have a short temper because… This gives children the sense of their life as a story, we don’t have to explain that’s what’s happening – it just happens. Eventually, with repetition of the process, they will put us into a context that makes sense for them

Their sense of autobiography is really the key to our children transcending our parenting mistakes, and breaking patterns of behaviour that have come down through the generations. Tempers do fray; divorces do happen; our children might not have the same opportunities as other children – but we can help. 

The children who grow up to be great adults despite their backgrounds (dreadful, average or  fabulous) have had extra nurturing and calm than others in the same family or situation, and/or a great sense of autobiography.  And if we want better for ourselves than our current situation: autobiographies are a great way to begin. (Including emotions and motivations of all involved. Yep, even if you believe emotions need to be controlled.)

For more innovative ideas about dealing with tantrums buy my book,


About Karyn @ kloppenmum

kloppenmum is me, Karyn Van Der Zwet, mother of three and ex-teacher. I'm part of a revolution in parenting, with the aim to raise mature (not sophisticated) and self-assured children. I also know some stuff about adults. I have also had articles printed in The Journal for The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (Children and Young People) and the US parenting magazine, Pathways to Family Wellness, as well I regularly write for World Moms Blog (named as one of the Forbes 100 most useful blogs for women 2012 &2013). You can follow me on facebook (kloppenmum) pinterest (Karyn at Kloppenmum) and twitter (@kloppenmum). I'm also vaguely on LinkedIn (Karyn Van Der Zwet). Thanks to Joe (Mr Hare) for taking the photo. Cheers, son: xxxx.
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51 Responses to Autobiography: Why you need to have one.

  1. That is awesome advice!! Now- just get into the routine of doing it-right? Every time I read your post- I think that you are brilliant.

    • kloppenmum says:

      Why shucks and thank you.
      You could make it particular nights of the week, perhaps ? It’s certainly worth doing, and they are so vain (in a cute way of course) that they ask for it once you’ve done it a few times. Our kids also like to hear the story of their birth…I do edit!

  2. Mama Bee says:

    Fantastic advice. It is as if itnwas written for me! A few day ago I lost it and didn’t manage to reconnect with my son before bed time. The next day he had a horrible day at school and a few fights I think it was residual horribleness from the day before. I used to always make it a point to calm down and reconnect. Must start again!

  3. nice. enjoyed your narrative and writing! lovely thoughts and as i’m up at 233am hacking away w a cough that woke me up, that’s the best i can do! 😉 keep on! really nice site though. got a bit of a perusal and u say it well.

  4. I too love the idea of the day story. What a great way to wind down. Max would probably benefit from that most as she lives in her own world most of the time anyway. She never, let me say that again, never sees things the way everyone else does. Perhaps this idea will give her some perspective. Perhaps she will see it as amusing fiction. Either way, it’s a good practice. One day, maybe my blogging will serve as my lasting autobiography to my kids. They will then know, without a doubt, that the Sanity Ship did indeed sink, and that The World According To Max was a very funny place to hang out.

    • kloppenmum says:

      The Sanity Ship is fairly rickety here some days too. I love the idea that Max is in her own world – the world needs interesting people.

  5. lindamciver says:

    Such good advice. I don’t think any parents manage to be the parents they want to be all the time. I have broken things too, and always cringe afterwards at the example I am setting for my children. 😦 But it’s the reconnecting, and talking it through honestly afterwards that I think is really important. Everyone loses it sometimes – it’s owning up to that and taking responsibility for the consequences that’s rare.

    I love your descriptions of temperaments – is there more info somewhere??

    • kloppenmum says:

      The temperament information is currently in my head…not very useful I know. I intend to get a website up and running next year and will post here when it’s ‘alive’. Thank-you for commenting so positively, and have a great holiday.

  6. Wow, this is a great idea! I try to highlight some good parts of the day with my kids at night, but I think using a whole day narrative helps put everything back in place. And yes, like you, I don’t understand but highly envy parents who never lose it. Kids have a natural knack to push our buttons just the right way, and I can only keep my cool about 50% of the time…

    • kloppenmum says:

      50% is great…we’re all a work in progress when all said and done! Thanks for looking and the blog and leaving a comment. Have a great holiday.

  7. Truly splendid idea, Karyn. We’ve done a version of this here and there without contemplating the larger importance, so I really appreciate the perspective. Thanks for the encouragement — we’ll be making it a more regular, intentional part of our parenting, that’s for sure.

    And also, I just want to thank you for normalizing being a parent who is also human. In the parenting advice world, this concept is largely invisible, though still very present in most of our actual lives. It’s a dangerous situation for parents who have their “messiness” leap out more often than is comfortable if they are also steeping in guilt, and wondering why they can’t “keep it together” like they are “supposed” to. The idea that we WILL “blow it” or “lose it” occasionally (and more often than we would all like) and that we can “clean up our mess” together with our children is much more helpful (and reasonable) than the idea that we must never ever make mistakes, and that if we do, we are terrible child abusers (just for not keeping our “cool”). Thanks again, Karyn.

    Be well,
    Nathan M

    • kloppenmum says:

      Thankyou for your thoughtful reply, Nathan. I agree that many parents experience guilt when things don’t go smoothly and I, for one,was very pleased when I realised that I could help in such a simple way as telling a day story every now and again.

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  9. That’s a great advice. Happy new year.

  10. Enjoyed this post, very useful, both for parent and child.
    For ‘their ability to make sense of us’ I see it linking to the JoHari window in terms of exploring the “things others know about us, which we are unaware of in ourself” window. Helps them understand themself also – so if part of that days story was ‘aunt linda came over and you ran and hid while we sat outside with coffee, I think you were a bit shy, but then I asked you to come over and say hi and that was ok’ helps them know that’s what shyness is, and that its a normal feeling (watching the tone and emotion in your voice of course)

    • kloppenmum says:

      Absolutely. I think many of us, in the west, are often not so good at normalising emotional reactions for our children. But, I think there is a growing awareness that those emotions don’t just disappear by putting on a brave-face, they fester. Emotions are a sign that something is wrong – not fundamentally wrong.

  11. minify says:


    Have you read The Happiness Project (Gretchen Rubin)? I’m about two thirds of the way through it, and your post made me think more about it. Rubin has got a whole section on parenting that’s sort of fascinating, because she’s trying so hard to react better (have more patience, be more silly and cheerful)…and feeling so guilty when she can’t. She also explores the idea of inborne personality and how that affects emotions (especially happiness) – the nature v. nurture debate drags on. Mercifully, she concludes that they’re both important, and then spends the rest of the book trying to change the things she can control to be happier. Her book strikes me as an interesting combination of autoethnography and using onself as a guinea pig in a yearlong social experiment. She quotes a lot of statistics without providing any real citations, which is bothersome, but on the whole it’s been a good read.

    As someone who works with children, I’m all for managing my emotions and reactions in front of them…but I’m glad you’re legitimizing the idea that parents are people, and imperfect ones with real feelings. I think that idea could use wider dissemination, in a world where suppression and sublimation seem like the only socially legitimate options left to parents for dealing with negative emotions.

    • kloppenmum says:

      No, I haven’t read The Happiness Project. Despite being an avid reader, life is interferring with my spare time.
      My investigations came from a need to alter what we were doing for our eldest and not liking the one dimensional approach to parenting that most ‘experts’ recommend. I have done a lot of reading about the temperament we are born with and home environment, and have also concluded that they interact with one another to create personality. So not: nature vs nurture; but nurture modifying (or not) nature. We, also used ourselves as guinea pigs (I figured if Piaget could get away with it, so could we!). I would love to spread my findings far and wide, so thank-you for the support, and feel free to pass my URL on to anyone you think would be interested.
      Thanks for stopping by and leaving such a thoughtful comment.

  12. Wait, there are parents who never lose it?

    • kloppenmum says:

      Apparently. I get told this by them, and aim to include people not annoy them too much (just challenge at little)…I refuse to comment further on the grounds it might get me into trouble!

  13. Sangitha says:

    You know, when I visited NZ (my sister lives there), I was told everywhere that if my son had a temper tantrum and screamed his head off (he did that then) a few times, people would call the Dept. of Child, Youth and Family on us. Is that really the case? Because then, there is some serious pressure on parents to keep it all together all the time and for kids to be I don’t know what!

    It’s such a lovely country you have there. We had a real ball with the phenomenal cheeses and wines and beaches and whale watches. Shall visit again for sure!

    • kloppenmum says:

      Ahh, no. But we did almost have a melt-down when legislation against smacking was introduced…it was an interesting measure of our culture, I think, that so many people couldn’t do without it. Thank-you, New Zealand is beautiful, pleased you enjoyed your visit.

  14. mamanne says:

    Thank you for visiting my blog! I replied to your question about “camp” and I hope it makes sense!
    One thing I have found very helpful when I blow it with my daughter – and blow it I do! – is to apologize. If I have lost patience and my temper, then when we both cool off we sit and discuss it, hug, laugh, whatever… I just don’t ever want to leave it to be something shoved under the rug, you know?

    • kloppenmum says:

      Thanks for replying to my camp question…I’ve added another! Yes, I agree about the apologising; it makes a huge difference to our relationship when I’ve made any kind of mistake (like too long blogging!) and can ‘fess up; and it’s good modelling for them too.

  15. raisingdaisy says:

    Great advice. There’s no such thing as a “perfect parent”, we all come to the kiddie table with the baggage of our lives weighing us down. BUT – we can be diligent and try not to let our “stuff” affect our kids. And, doing the best we can, we make mistakes but can also make amends and fix those mistakes for next time the same situation occurs. And who knows, in the process, we may just help ourselves as well as our children!

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  17. Mary the OINKteller says:

    Great post! My temper frays often, though I am sorry to admit it. Through blogging, I try and capture my life’s little moments but I really love your idea of having my kids verbalize their little moments in a nightly autobiography. My oldest son is 10 and he often focuses on the negative. We are constantly helping him put things in context. BTW, thanks for stopping by OINKtales.

    • kloppenmum says:

      Pleased you enjoyed the post, I hope it all works out with your son. I really enjoyed your post about forgetting people’s names. Congrats on FP status!

  18. Trudy says:

    I’m not a parent but from the role of a child (though adult now), I really appreciate the words here. Your perspective on parenting is really unique, and one I think is great. Keep up the great writing.

    • kloppenmum says:

      Thanks for stopping by and particularly for commenting. Yes, I think a sense of autobiography is essential for managing as an adult, and this is a really great way of helping children to establish the processes. Thanks also for the compliments about my writing.

  19. Fabulous advice!!!!! My grandson is a Hare. Indeed a hare. I will be coming back to read more. 🙂

    • kloppenmum says:

      That’s great. Yes, Hares are interesting…while they are meant to be the leaders of the world, they are also the most demanding behaviour wise. Thanks for commenting.

  20. Chris says:

    I am so stealing this!

    Well, not quite. My middle child remembers vividly when I lost my temper and backhanded him in the car while wearing some rings. I admit to him that it was not my best parenting moment. It makes me more humble. Though he now kind of understands as a swimming teacher. He has difficult students, and he is much better at patience than I was. I admit, he takes after his father!

    • kloppenmum says:

      Ouch! Not a great moment.
      It is a great strategy, and easy to do.
      Patience is good. I’ve learned patience from our children…ok, I’ve learned greater patience from our children. 😉

  21. faemom says:

    Wow! That is amazing advice. I’m going to have to try that.

    • kloppenmum says:

      It does work really well. I get begged to tell Day Stories often, and the bigger two of our kids already seem be able to put lots of things from their lives into perspective. Usually me! 😉

  22. I was so pulled in by your title. And I like your writing style. I am very taken by this idea of story and autobiography. I hope you will write more about it in the future.

    • kloppenmum says:

      Thanks Juliann.
      I love stories, and the more I understand about people who have done OK after awful childhoods, the more sense having an autobiography makes. Being able to put our parents into emotional/situational context is a huge part of this. I hadn’t planned on doing another post about stories for a while, but will add it to my ‘to do’ list now. Always good to know what people want to read. Thanks for commenting.

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  24. Oh, OK. I understand now. Where were you about 5 years ago, my new friend? lol I could have used this advice, but somehow stumbled upon the smiling, story telling and emotion naming. Maybe I gleaned it from all the parenting books I’ve read, I don’t know. But it would have been much easier to read your post series!

    So rather than a direct autobiography, I tell a story and mix fantasy and reality. Four years ago it was a friendly monster with anger management issues. Now is it a fairy story and adventures. I often describe things that happened to use IRL or places we go and embellish it a bit, especially things I want them to learn. They love it. It’s interesting to see what they interject. Much more effective than a lecture…

    Someone once asked me where I get material for our stories and it’s usually daily life or other stories we’ve read. The kids suggest the rest… I get a little creative sometimes but not often.

    • kloppenmum says:

      Great that you tell stories, Cori. It’s an awesome thing to do with children. I know what you mean about this information, I could have done with it 10 years ago when expecting our number one! I guess that’s why they say life is a journey…without that ignorance I wouldn’t have seen such an angry boy, then searched so strongly for answers etcetera etcetera…Loving this connection over the waves!

  25. ecoziva says:

    We do a sort of game that my son enjoys. Sometimes at bedtime when he is in complaining mode (about how he doesn’t want to go to bed, it isn’t fair, he should be able to play more, what an awful day, blablabla – he can get really dramatic at times!) I start telling him a story about his “bad day”. I begin with something like, yeah you really should complain because today was the worst day ever! So I tell him about his day, only everything happened in an opposite manner (and it was all “bad”, but in a funny way). He immediately stops complaining to hear the bad day story and thinks it is really funny!! 🙂

    • Humour is great! And it’s also important that our children experience (in full) their more negative emotions – so that they learn to manage them and to learn that they are nothing to be feared. (Anger being the exception – as it can become a habit and can be comfused with violence. I intend to write about this in an article…)

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