Family Storytelling for the Holidays

Relax, talk, and most importantly, listen.

Posted Dec 22, 2019

I must admit, I am flattered.  As the holiday draws near, many people in media are approaching me — radio, newspaper, magazines — about pieces they are doing on family storytelling.  Our work in the Family Narratives Lab has achieved some good publicity.  Our lab found that adolescents and young adults that know more about their family history (and especially those that know more elaborated, coherent, and emotionally involved stories about their parents’ childhoods) show positive outcomes such as higher self-esteem, higher academic and social competence, lower anxiety and depression, and fewer behavior problems.

I wrote about why we see these relations in my other blogs, as well as in my new book, Family Narratives and the Development of an Autobiographical Self. We now have evidence that these relations hold across cultures, including new research with Chinese adolescents and Maori adolescents conducted with Drs. Yan Chen, Ella Cullen, Qi Wang and Elaine Reese. Knowing family history and being able to retell stories about your parents’ childhoods is good for you.  So with the holidays approaching, everyone is asking what can parents do to make sure their children know these stories.  How can parents intentionally tell stories that will be good for their children? And exactly what kinds of stories should they tell?  

I understand these questions, but I realize that we may have inadvertently given the wrong message about the research.  It is not a story or the story that matters; it is that the family tells stories.  Some of the stories may be funny, about dumb ideas and even dumber adventures; some may be sad, about love scorned or lost, or morality tales, stories about doing something wrong and feeling regret or even guilt.  Or just stories of everyday life about being anxious about a first date, scared about a new school, or joyously awaiting the return of a loved one from far away.  It is the telling, the sharing, and the listening that is more important than the story itself.  

Stories are who we are. Our lives are a series of experiences that we share all the time with others through stories: “You won’t believe what happened at the store today," “Guess who I ran into at lunch?”, or more distant stories, “You know, when I went to my high school prom…” or “I still remember how scared I was to move out of my parents’ house.” We tell these stories as they happen and we tell many of them again and again over the years as they become part of our repertoires – this is who I am; these are my stories.

But just as we change and develop, so do our stories.  Stories are living, breathing parts of us and as we gain experience and hopefully wisdom, we understand our experiences in new ways and tell our stories accordingly.  We do not have to agree with each other about our stories – indeed, I wrote a blog about what happens when families have very different perspectives on what happened.  But sharing the stories creates a kind of interaction, one in which family members bear their souls, open up about who they are, and share their innermost selves.  They become a family.  It is not a family story, let alone the family story.  It is a multitude of family stories — told by all members — that may complement each other, conflict, oppose, or completely mesh.  These are the stories of our lives and just as each family member is an individual, the stories are individual, but still marinated in the family's telling. 

How do we tell stories? What are strategies to intentionally create meaningful moments in which to impart your story of wisdom to your child? This may not be the right question.  Stories happen all the time.  In one study from the Family Narratives Lab, we tape-recorded typical family dinnertime conversations and stories emerged every five minutes. This is in line with findings from other studies of everyday conversations.  You do not have to find the perfect time to intentionally tell a story; you can tell stories naturally and spontaneously in everyday conversation. 

This does not mean that you don’t want to or need to think about which family stories may be most important to share.  Certainly, at the holidays there are special moments of sharing family time, shopping for gifts for special people, wrapping presents, baking cookies, and so on — moments when feelings about family emerge and stories about the family's past may be more likely to emerge.  This may also be when the older generation is present and thus it is a good time to deliberately ask for stories from grandparents and great aunts and uncles.  But my best advice is to just relax! Stories are not some magic elixir that must be conjured up.  They are the air we breathe.  All we have to do is relax, talk, and, most important, listen. The stories will come naturally.