Family Stories Form Us

My mother kept family stories alive by folding them into our lives as we grew up. She’d remark, “This would have been your Uncle John’s birthday,” and then she’d tell us something about him. Like the time he taught her how bad cigarettes were. That day he took her behind the garage and let her smoke until she was sick. (She was four years old.) Or how he skipped out on his college scholarship and pretended he didn’t have a bad back so he could sign up for the Air Force. His plane was shot down on his 47th mission, his body never found.

She told us about a great-great-grandfather, left to take a nap under a shade tree as a baby. He was taken by passing Native Americans, who may very likely have thought the tiny boy was abandoned. His parents didn’t go after him with guns, they brought pies and cakes to those who’d taken him to ask for him back.

She told us about a tiny great grandmother who expected other people to meet her every need, but when a candle caught the Christmas tree on fire that same helpless little grandmother immediately picked it up and threw it out the plate glass window to keep the house from burning down.

She told us about her Swedish grandmother who was widowed not long after coming to this country, but kept the family together by taking in laundry. And about the only son growing up in that family who ran away as a teen. They didn’t hear from him till he’d made a new life under a new name, years later.

My mother didn’t just talk about long-gone family members. She told us about people in our everyday lives too. She talked about dating our father, saying he was still the most wonderful man she ever met. She told us about meeting his sister and her husband for the first time—they were on the roof of the house they were building together, hammering down shingles. And she shared inspiring stories from friends, neighbors, and people she’d only read about. She never said it aloud, but her stories gave me the sense that I too had within me the sort of mettle and courage to handle whatever came my way.

Turns out there’s more value to stories than my mother might have imagined.

1. Child development experts say young children who know family stories have fewer behavior problems, less anxiety, more family cohesiveness, and stronger internal locus of control. When mothers were taught to respond to their preschool-aged children with what researchers call elaborative reminiscence, their children were better able to understand other people’s people’s ideas and emotions—a vital skill at any age.

2. Family storytelling provides remarkable benefits as children get older. Preteens whose families regularly share thoughts and feelings about daily events as well as about recollections showed higher self-esteem. And for teens, intergenerational narratives help them to shape their own identity while feeling connected

3. Researchers asked children 20 questions on the Do You Know Scale, such as:

  • Do you know where your grandparents grew up?
  • Do you know some of the lessons that your parents learned from good or bad experiences?
  • Do you know the story of your birth?

Results showed that the most self-confident children had a sturdy intergenerational self, a sense they belonged and understood what their family was about. This sense of belonging was called the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.”

(Here are some ways to naturally incorporate family stories into your children’s lives.)

I’ll admit, the stories my mother told throughout my childhood didn’t skimp on tragedy but always highlighted positive character traits. It wasn’t until I was much older that more shadowed family tales slipped out—stories of mental health problems, alcoholism, and lifelong rifts. Those stories are just as important.

Our family tales are simply stories of humanity. All stories help to remind us what it means to be alive on this interconnected planet.  Every day that passes gives us more stories to tell. Even better, more to listen to as well.

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image: Navanna

13 thoughts on “Family Stories Form Us

    • Telling each other our stories, old ones as well as new ones we accumulate each day, is really the way all of us stay connected. It’s how we stay in relationship not only with our children but our partners, friends, and strangers thrown together by circumstance. Nothing like a good story.


  1. Those stories can teach us gratitude as well. My mother told us younger ones about raising our older siblings in occupied Holland during the Second World War, when hundreds of thousands died of starvation. I still clean my plate to this day, and none of us were ever fussy feeders or ever more than slightly overweight….


    • Absolutely. Stories put our lives in context. My grandmother (daughter of the poor Swedish immigrant) had such poor nutrition as a child that her bones weren’t properly calcified. Every wince of pain we saw her try to hide reinforced the story of her difficult childhood and, by comparison, our own tremendous good fortune.


  2. W had no family story telling in my family. When asked about family we were put off, or given a short answer or just lied to. I am certain that is the reason I started my family genealogy. Our family story is rich in villains and heroes who’s stories need to be told.


  3. Wonderful post and I appreciated the linked articles. This makes so much sense to me. My family didn’t have much in the way of stories but my husband’s family showed me their power over and over and made me a true believer. In his age, my sweet father-in-law drank his coffee from a mug that the kids gave him with the slogan “Keeper of the family tales”.

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  4. Indeed. My family is one of storytellers, even though we don’t know our history that far back. But the stories of silliness (my grandmother stealing ribbons from cemeteries as a little girl for her hair) and resilience (my great-grandfather immigrating to the U.S. when he was 15, not knowing any English), I carry with me know. I hope to tell them to my own son, as well as the stories of my husband and I.


  5. Thank you so much for this great info. I’m really interested in recording the family stories my grandmother has to share while she’s still with us. I’ve thought about the idea that knowing more about my family – including generations back – helps me build a stronger sense of who I am. I didn’t realize there was research on the subject though.

    Thanks again and please keep sharing the great info.



  6. In the early 1980s, I worked as a teacher’s assistant in a preschool.
    I used to read a lot of books to the children, but they loved to hear stories about my own childhood most of all.
    One day, a little boy came up to me and said: “Can you please ‘read’ us another story about when you were little? You know—the stories with no books.”
    About 30 years later, I was trying to think of a domain name for my WordPress website–a name that someone else had not already taken (this turned out to be much harder than I thought it would be). Then suddenly, I remembered the words that I had heard so long ago. And that is why (since 2012) my domain name has been “Stories with No Books.” 🙂


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