Do you shudder when you think of more family stories being told around the dinner table?
You may, if you’re like me, and the stories have anything to do with your rebellious antics in high school (i.e., removing the baby Jesus from the town’s church manger to take on a joy ride).
But according to research studies from the last few years, family storytelling and reminiscing is vital.
Yes, the good, the bad, and even the ugly.
And researchers have found that storytelling and reminiscing is particularly important for families with children and teens.
In the study, researchers Duke and Fivush explored how a child’s sense of self is correlated to questions in a “Do You Know” scale.
The scale included 20 family-related questions like: “How did your parents meet?” and “Do you know the story of your birth?”
Sampling four-dozen families in the summer of 2001, researchers compared the children’s results from the scale to a range of psychological tests that they had taken.
The study concluded that the children who could answer the questions in the “Do You Know Scale” had:
- a stronger sense of control over their lives
- a higher self-esteem and
- believed that their families functioned successfully.
Ultimately, the results showed that children who know the most about their families, are the ones who are the happiest and healthiest.
Types of Family Narrative
The type and tone of stories that families share at dinner, during holidays, and at family reunions is very important.
The study discovered three types of family narratives:
- Ascending: Your grandpa grew up in a house with dirt floors and worked his way through college, to graduate the first in his class. We were able to save for your father to go to business school and take over the family business.
- Descending: We had it all going for us, until the restaurant burned down, and then we lost everything. We couldn’t afford to send your mom to college, so she never went.
- Oscillating: Things have been up and down in life. Your grandma was sick for a long time. We built a great family business that has gone through challenges and changes, but is still serving the community. We didn’t have money to send all the kids to college, but all the kids made their way and are happy in their careers.
Not surprisingly, Dr. Duke says that the “Oscillating Narrative” is the healthiest. It’s the one narrative that highlights positive growth and resiliency in the face of challenge.
Researchers have continued to build on these initial findings over the past few years and arrived at similar conclusions.
A follow-up study in 2010, examined family story construction in relation to adolescent identity and well-being.
This study, like the one in 2001, confirmed the importance of “family reminiscing” and storytelling as a valuable activity for families with teens.
It identified how storytelling is a vital modality for families to express and explain feelings.
This process is significant for adolescents, who are constructing their identities and what Fivush and colleagues call, “the story of life that defines who they are and who they want to be.”
Family Stories and the Intergenerational Self
These studies reveal something deeper, though, about the importance of family storytelling.
Something that’s imperative to understand in our fractured and hyper-paced culture.
They highlight how family narrative impacts young people’s sense of belonging and identification with something larger than themselves.
Specifically, it shows the necessity of what the Emory researchers label an “intergenerational self.”
Children who know a lot about their families reap the benefit of being connected to something larger than themselves – a lineage, a history, a group of people.
The children who grow up being told family stories can position their own story and sense of self within the intergenerational story.
These findings align with what I’ve witnessed anecdotally with legacy story clients and confirmed in a small, informal survey.
About 6 months ago, through a simple two-question survey, I wanted to understand if people valued family legacy and generation-specific stories.
Here’s what I asked:
If you were given a professionally produced story of an elder loved one (alive or passed), what would your initial reaction be?
- Over-joyed and eager to watch it
- Really pleased to have the keepsake and I’ll watch it eventually
- Grateful for the thoughtfulness. Not sure when I’ll get around to watching it
- Not that excited
In this very small and informal sampling of about 30 people, 71% said “over-joyed” and the rest responded that they’d be “really pleased to have the keepsake.”
This was by no means a formal research study, but I think it does aim at what the Emory studies have revealed.
We do value our intergenerational self. We do value intergenerational story.
Make Time for Story and the Intergenerational Self
Interestingly enough, as the study findings were made public, people made a false assumption.
“If only our children know the answers to the Scale questions, then they will be happy and healthy!”
No, sir. Not that simple.
Dr. Duke expressed that you can’t assume that your child will be healthy and happy, just by knowing the answers to these questions.
Rather, the study points to the ritualized time, space, and connecting that comes with family storytelling.
Presumably, the families who value storytelling and connection time are the ones who have children with higher self-esteem, resiliency, and a feeling of belonging.
This take-away is crucial:
Make time to attend to family stories, to craft them, and to share them.
Tips for Crafting Family Narrative
What does it mean, practically, to make time for family stories?
Glad you asked. Here are some thoughts:
If you have children…
- Make time to eat dinner together and tell family stories. Take turns asking the questions and doing the telling.
- Encourage you kids to ask their grandparents, aunts, and uncles about family stories.
- Pay attention to the family stories you consistently tell your children. The stories that are the most generative are those that share positive moments and the family’s ability to persevere through the hard times.
If you have a beloved elder in your life…
- Make time to sit, look through photos, ask questions, and listen.
- Find simple ways to record their stories. Use your phone and video or audio record 5 minutes of them telling a short story. Share it with the family.
- At holidays, family gatherings, or reunions, ask your elder loved one to share a story or two – for everyone to hear.
- Need question prompts to get you started? Click here. Need some key tips? Click here.
Whether you come from a family with sparse storytelling, or a family with a rich narrative…
May you relish in your family stories. The good, the bad, and the ugly.
May you view family vignettes as golden terrain to explore who you are, are not, and who you came to be.
And above all, may you focus on the stories of growth and resiliency.
Because stories matter, after all!
Especially, it turns out, if you have kids!
Need more story capturing ideas? Looking for a way to professionally capture your elderly loved one’s life to be shared with generations to come?
Bohanek, et al. 2006. Family Narrative Interaction and Children’s Sense of Self. Family Process 45 (1): 39-54.
Fivush, Bohanek, and Marin. 2010. Patterns of Family Narrative Co-construction in Relation to Adolescent Identity and Well-being. Narrative Development in Adolescents: 45-64.