Make Storytelling a Family Tradition

importance of family stories

image: CC by 2.0 echoroo

“Language exerts hidden power, like a moon on the tides.” ~Rita Mae Brown

We began to tell stories not long after we humans gained the power of speech. Stories gathered people together, giving them a way to remember their shared history, to transmit wisdom, to laugh and ponder, to awaken possibilities.

Stories were told over and over and listeners came to know them well. They participated through call-and-response, or by drumming, chanting, or swaying. The tale came alive.

We’re still a storytelling species. Look at the way children experience stories. They beg us to tell (or read) a particular story over and over, one that resonates inside where only stories can reach. Children incorporate stories into make-believe. Their favorite books may very well help to shape who they will become.

Particularly when they’re young, many children can’t help but get involved in the same ways their earliest ancestors once did. They instinctively call out a repeating phrase or yell a warning to a main character. They tap their knees in excitement, hum a tune, or otherwise accompany the story with movement. They feel the story. They become the story.

It’s important to read to our children regularly, but we can go beyond the printed page by making storytelling a family tradition. This has amazing benefits. In fact, it appears that children whose relatives share family anecdotes feel a stronger sense of belonging —- a quality researchers call  best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.”

Children enjoy hearing true tales, especially about themselves.

~Tell them their birth or adoption story including the months of anticipation, reactions of family members, the weather that day.

~Tell them stories of their earliest years––the way he used to cry at the sight of dogs until he finally worked up the courage to pet one and fell in love with all things canine; the time she made friends with another three-year-old at the airport and the fathers got to talking only to discover they had grown up in the same town.

~Tell them stories about their relative’s younger days. It stretches their imaginations to hear about Aunt Essie’s girlhood on the farm, Great-grandpa’s bout with polio, their own father’s youthful antics..

~Talk about family members who have passed away, as far back as you can. Help children imagine these people clearly— talk about what they loved to do, their favorite foods, and acts that were courageous, foolhardy, eccentric, or otherwise out of the ordinary.

Children also enjoy tales made up on the spot.

~Tell an ongoing adventure that features heroic young people who live in a make-believe world, perhaps on a quest to reach a goal. Plot twists and new characters can stretch the tale into months of bedtime stories.

~Tell stories together. One person starts a story (perhaps by putting unlikely characters into an improbable situation), then passes it along to the next person who adds more to the story, and so on. This is great to do on a long drive or while stuck in a waiting room.

~Ask kids to tell you a story. Our children can start seeing what goes on around them as story material — bringing the long tradition of storytelling into the next generation.

Beyond the content of any story is the ritual itself––that of telling, listening and enjoying together. This is something no commercial product can duplicate.

Gathering together to tell our tales is a tradition nearly as old as clustering around a fire for warmth.  As Ursula K. LeGuin says, “There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.”

telling family stories, how to tell family stories,

image: CC by 2.0 Jerry Kirkhart

12 thoughts on “Make Storytelling a Family Tradition

  1. It’s not just the fact that there’s a story to be told, it’s also the telling aloud. My family was great at reading aloud, and we were all taught how to inject feeling, drama, excitement into the tale being told. To this day, I still love to read aloud, and would recommend it as a way of keeping children involved, interested, and with their attention OFF whatever electronic device they’d otherwise be buried in. It’s also a way of getting someone interested in a book they have otherwise rejected as too boring, too hard or not their thing. Storytelling is powerful stuff!

    Liked by 1 person

    • There’s no kid too old to listen to books. Even with 10 years between my oldest and youngest, I’d read aloud during breakfast or lunch and all four of them with stay right at the table to listen. Often we’d move over to the couch and read another chapter, and another. You’re right about the power of a story aloud.

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  2. My husband is seven of nine children and one of the most powerful inheritances that they got from their parents was the ability to tell stories. I know much more about past generations in his family then I do in my own, and I’ve been in measurably enriched by that. One of the beauties of his family is that everybody recognized this story telling as a gift, and when my father-in-law was an elder, one of the siblings gave him a mug that said keeper of the family tales, a gift which delighted him in his respected wisdom years.

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  3. Thanks for this. You made an impression on just how important these stories are – that children beg to hear them again and again. I’ve always told the birth story to each child on their birthday, and now share with grandchildren stories about their parents – though, now thinking about all the g g grandparent stories they need to hear. I always look forward to your posts! Debra

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    • Yes! Tell those grandparent and great grandparent stories! My father shared very little about his difficult childhood and military service until the last year of his life. There’s still so much I want to ask him. Names on a family tree become people to us when we hear those stories.

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  4. I miss the story-telling with the kids days. We read to our children every night before bed. Even though we had a large collection of bedtime books, after a while I got bored with them. So I started ad-libbing. I told all the stories I knew or could invent, often using characters like Robin Hood. Sometimes I told stories based on songs. So my son heard about Tommy the blind deaf mute who became a sensational pinball player, about Johnny and his fiddling contest with the devil, and even about Roland the headless Thompson gunner (OK that may have been pushing the envelope 🙂 ).

    Thanks for churning about happy memories.

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