What Stories Will You Leave as Your Family Legacy?

Telling and listening to stories is a gift we give others and ourselves.

Posted Nov 11, 2019

It is almost Thanksgiving, a day defined by gatherings of family and friends over way too much food and (hopefully!) lots of love and laughter. And stories. Thanksgiving is traditionally a time when families tell and retell their favorite stories, stories about when the kids were little and put peas up their noses, and stories about when the parents were young and did wild and crazy things, like taking off on a spur-of-the-moment cross-country car trip, or lied to their parents about going to that party after they were forbidden to go.  

We all have stories like these. Some are funny, or poignant, or sad. Some ended well and some, perhaps, not so well. Some may be difficult to tell and hear – stories about the world being unsafe and unforgiving. But we tell them, again and again.  And – importantly – teenagers want to hear them. Oh, they may roll their eyes and groan, but our research in the Family Narratives Lab shows how closely adolescents are listening to these stories and just how much they matter.

I have blogged a lot about the power of family stories. Adolescents who know stories about their parents and grandparents growing up show better outcomes on so many dimensions–higher self-esteem, fewer behavior problems, higher-quality relationships with parents, and more. This research has gotten a lot of media attention, most recently in a Wall Street Journal article by Sue Shellenbarger titled “The Secret Benefits of Retelling Family Stories”. I am grateful for this publicity because family storytelling is one of the easiest things you can do to create happier families and help adolescents cope with their own difficult transitions into adulthood. So more specifically, what can you do this Thanksgiving?  Here are my 5 tips for Thanksgiving family storytelling:

1. Don’t wait to sit down at the table. Tell stories while setting the table and cooking the holiday meal.  Stories about the family past come naturally to mind as one is preparing for the upcoming family event.

2.Tell a mix of stories – don’t focus on only one kind of story.  Tell stories that are just plain funny with no other point at all, and stories that might be a bit bittersweet about family no longer with us.   

3. Let your children lead the way – ask them to tell stories they remember, either stories about their own family or stories they have been told about their parents and grandparents. 

4. Allow yourself to be vulnerable.  Stories can be morality tales that carry a life lesson but remember that you had to learn that lesson, and it doesn’t come easily.  

5. Think about what stories are most important for you to leave for your children. If your children only knew one or two stories about your life, what stories would you want those to be and why?  

Most important, relax and have fun – laugh at yourself! Stories are naturally the way we share our selves with each other, all the time.  So tell stories that come to you in the moment. And listen when others tell their stories, including your children. Telling and listening to stories is a gift we give others and ourselves.