Our Stories and the Stories of Our Families
How can the simple stories we recount and share be useful in our daily lives?
Posted Aug 25, 2020
How do we come to make sense of our daily lives? How can we gain a strong grasp of who we “really” are and how we fit in the world? And how can we naturally connect to important others in our lives? Life stories are one of the prime tools we have for understanding ourselves and the people important to us.
Humans are natural storytellers. We use stories to make sense of our daily lives, to draw insights from our pasts, and to anticipate future goals and opportunities. Thus, storytelling is central to our lives—whether privately recounting an experience years ago, journaling something that happened earlier in the day, or sharing mundane stories at dinnertime.
But it is not only our personal stories that are important for us. The stories of our families are critical in many ways.
Family storytelling is key for many aspects of development. Storytelling is a form of rich engagement between family members. Sharing bedtime stories and talks after school, walking through an event that left a child crying—these are all opportunities for parents (and other caretakers) and kids to become closer through warmth, understanding, and support. Research by Robyn Fivush and colleagues has underscored the importance of parenting in storytelling with young children. The ways parents support children’s emotions and help children recount more vivid, richly detailed stories have lasting impacts on children’s cognitive and emotional development.
Children learn how to talk about their lives and what is important to talk about from family stories. For example, they learn customs and normative behaviors. An early example that we take for granted is learning how to present a detailed story with a beginning, a middle, and an end—to give it a clear structure. Further, children learn what is appropriate to talk about or avoid and stay silent on. What topics are appropriate over dinner or out in public. What feelings are appropriate to share with others. It takes time and effort for inexperienced storytellers to do this, but children are surrounded by stories that present this structure and give a model for them to work with.
Children are surrounded by individuals who can help make sense of their rudimentary stories, who can repeat and gently correct details, and who can help ask questions that nudge children along in thinking about events in more complex ways than they can do on their own. With these supports, a toddler is able to recount going to the park earlier in the day, a third-grader can recount some of their favorite birthday parties over the years, and a high schooler can point to the past experiences that helped them realize a passion for volleyball and the ways they have grown as a person from the past few seasons.
As teenagers and adults—individuals trying to figure out (and hold onto) our place in the world, and the values and roles that help define us—we use our life stories to build complex and stable views of ourselves. We make connections between our past successes and failures, our relationships over the years, and the kinds of activities that hold meaning to us to frame our identities. These identities reflect our roles as community members, as siblings, as co-workers, and so on. Our personal stories are vital to this. As we can make connections between our many different stories, we can frame and share a more complete view of ourselves. A number of researchers have studied this idea. Tillman Habermas and Susan Bluck provided a clear idea of the roles of life stories and the emergence of a coherent identity during the teen years that has guided other research in this area.
But it is not just that family members share stories and help provide feedback and insight on how to talk about life. The stories about our families are informative and valuable to us. These include stories about our parents' upbringing as children and how they acted (or acted up) with siblings, the traditions our families have maintained over the years, and the journeys of our ancestors' immigration. These stories about close others provide a foundation for ways we can understand and appreciate our broader histories.
And just as we hold onto our own precious experiences, we hold onto the hilarious tales of our aunts and uncles as children, the stories about how our parents met, and the times that our loved ones also lost a favorite toy, or struggled in their classes, or were sad when they moved from an old home. Our families share these wonderful insights that tell us so much about the world, about our cherished relationships, and ultimately, about ourselves. I was able to recently collaborate with Natalie Merrill on research that addressed this very idea, pointing to the ways teens and young adults carry forward vivid, richly detailed stories about their parents as children, and the ways they point to their own growth and identities in talking about their parents.
Lastly, there is value in receiving stories as well as sharing these stories. As we become more experienced storytellers, we step into roles as guides and sources of insight for our loved ones. We become the ones to share stories with life lessons for our kids over meals or during rides to the store. When our child is frustrated or confused, our stories can help them better understand the world and themselves. We can help give young storytellers the practice they need to handle talking about life on their own. We can also give older storytellers—school-age children and teens—the opportunity to problem-solve while they recount events, while giving them hope and insights for challenges at hand.
Getting to share our knowledge and values (and having someone actually hold onto those experiences and beam with pride when they end up sharing your story down the road) is incredibly rewarding. Just as our stories ground us with purpose and insight, they can help us make a lasting impact by uplifting those around us. These ways of using our experiences to uplift and support others—to guide rising generations—fit with Dan McAdams’ and others’ views on the roles of life stories further into adulthood.
Our stories—the simple stories we privately recall and those we share over a simple meal—are filled with meaning, insight, and value. What’s a story that stands out to you from a recent meal or chat with a loved one?
Fivush, R. (2008). Remembering and reminiscing: How individual lives are constructed in family narratives. Memory Studies, 1, 49-58.
Fivush, R., Brotman, M. A., Buckner, J. P., & Goodman, S. H. (2000). Gender differences in parent-child emotion narratives. Sex Roles, 42, 233- 253.
Habermas, T., & Bluck, S. (2000). Getting a life: The emergence of the life story in adolescence. Psychological Bulletin, 126, 748-769.
Merrill, N., Booker, J. A., & Fivush, R. (2019). Functions of parental intergenerational narratives told by young people. Topics in Cognitive Science, 11, 752-773.
McAdams, D. P., & de St. Aubin, E. (1992). A theory of generativity and its assessment through self-report, behavioral acts, and narrative themes in autobiography. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 62, 1003-1015.