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.”

 

 

 

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image: CC by 2.0 Jerry Kirkhart

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.”

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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