The Gift of Family Stories

What stories will you wrap up with a holiday bow?

Posted Dec 03, 2020

OK, I admit it—I am a “Dear Abby” fan. As I have mentioned in previous posts, I enjoy relaxing with a second cup of coffee and Dear Abby after digesting the news of the day. This week, I read one of the best Dear Abby letters ever—from “Wanted to Share” in Fresno, California. She and her husband had received a Christmas gift last year from one of their grandchildren that was a gift of memories. This grandchild had written one memory of her grandparents on each of 12 cards, put them in envelopes marked with the month to be opened, and boxed them up with a ribbon under the tree. Each month, the grandparents would open the card and read the grandchild’s written memory. I found this simple, beautiful, and moving idea for a gift inspiring. As I started to think about how I might do this for my own loved ones this holiday season, I realized that, of course, these memories would be stories. Stories of shared experiences, of funny and touching moments, of wonderful times, great adventures, and quiet moments together. This holiday, I will be giving, and hopefully receiving, family stories.  

This is a gift that anyone can give—children, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and siblings can give and receive stories across the generations.  

Stories passed on from grandparents to grandchildren might be especially meaningful, both for the tellers and the listeners. Grandparents play a critical role in the development of their grandchildren; they are an important source of care and knowledge, as described eloquently in a recent article by Alison Gopnik, a renowned developmental psychologist, in which she discusses the long evolutionary history of the role of multiple generations in helping to raise the young across species. One of her central arguments is that, by providing additional care and resources, grandparents allow the younger generation more time to explore and learn, a critical element for successful human development. In her words, “to exercise these impressive learning abilities, you need elders who can protect and nurture you. Curious children depend on caring adults,” including grandparents who can help shoulder the burdens of supportive caregiving.  

My work in the Family Narratives Lab points to another critical role that grandparents play in the development of their grandchildren. One pivotal avenue for learning and exploration is through stories—stories of others who have ventured out before you, who have taken multiple paths through life, who have learned lessons to be passed down. Stories that grandparents tell provide windows into unimagined worlds, and models for how lives should be lived. Stories that grandparents tell about their own experiences of growing up and growing old help young children gain a foothold in exploring new ways of being in the world. And children and adolescents who know these kinds of stories show multiple benefits, both personal and academic.  

Telling these stories also benefits grandparents. In telling our stories, we make sense of our experiences in new ways, we understand these experiences and ourselves in deeper, more reflective ways. And that leads to more positive affect, a sense of meaning and purpose in life, and a sense of integrity. Both grandparents and grandchildren benefit from the sharing of these intergenerational stories. 

In my previous posts, I have discussed that it is not necessary to plan to tell stories; that they emerge spontaneously in everyday activities, as we prepare and eat meals, watch TV, or during a car ride, as we talk about our days and our lives with each other. And these spontaneous stories are important; they provide small moments, touchstones, that connect us to each other and weave us into a family.  

But just as there are many different kinds of families, there are also many different kinds of stories. Small everyday stories that emerge spontaneously and more intentional stories, stories that we deliberate over and tell perhaps for a specific reason, a lesson learned, a moral tale, a value discovered. These kinds of intentional stories are also an important part of family storytelling. What stories do you want to make sure your children and grandchildren know about you, about your life, your challenges, struggles, and achievements? Your proudest moments and, perhaps, your regrets as well? What stories will you leave as a legacy for the younger generations, for them to learn from and to explore their own experiences in more reflective ways?  

What stories will you write down and wrap up with a holiday bow?

References

Gopnik, A. (November 9, 2020). Vulnerable yet vital. Aeon.