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Family Dynamics

Family Dinners and Stories Are More Important Than Ever

Stories told around the family dinner table predict positive youth outcomes.

Key points

  • Regular family dinners are linked to positive outcomes for children, such as higher self-esteem.
  • Knowing family history, including hardships and challenges, contributes to resilience.
  • Stories of personal and intergenerational experiences help bridge gaps.

Deep breath; the holidays are over. Whether the holidays are a time of pure joy or tinged with family strife for you, they are always a good time to reflect on the past year and think about priorities for the new year.

Perhaps especially this year, with so much division in our country and world, taking a moment to think about what we treasure about our families and how we might nourish that in the coming year is important. This kind of reflection always makes me think about the role of family dinnertime. Even for families that might experience discord, the dinner table is a place that can open a space for more open communication, and sharing family stories is at the heart of positive family communication.

My colleague, Rick Doner, a political scientist at Emory University, recently wrote an opinion piece in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on the family dinner table as a place to build ties. He discusses multiple ways that family conversations over dinner can strengthen family bonds by allowing opportunities for families to express themselves and learn to listen to, and maybe even value, differences in perspectives. Families that regularly eat dinner together have children with higher self-esteem, better academic performance, and fewer mental health problems.

As part of Doner's discussion of family dinners, he mentions the work that Marshall Duke and I have conducted over the years on family storytelling. In our research in The Family Narratives Lab, we delved into what happens around a typical family dinner table that is such a powerful positive force for children and adolescents.

We discovered that stories, stories about the shared family past ("that was like when we went to the beach last summer.”) and especially stories about the parents and grandparents growing up, what we call intergenerational narratives ("that was like when I was a little girl."), are a critical part of facilitating positive youth outcomes.

Subsequent research with hundreds of adolescents has confirmed that knowing and sharing intergenerational narratives are related to all sorts of positive outcomes: self-esteem, academic performance, social skills, perspective-taking, sense of mastery, sense of identity, and a sense of meaning and purpose in life.

When I discuss this research, someone always, rightfully, asks, but what about when the stories are negative, emotionally difficult, or traumatic? Surprisingly, stories of emotionally difficult experiences are particularly powerful predictors of positive youth outcomes. Adolescents who know stories of their parents' struggles show high levels of resilience and ability to cope with aversive experiences. Stories of intergenerational trauma can help youth cope with current difficulties by providing models of resistance, strength, and hope, alongside acknowledging the suffering.

Results from our research in The Family Narratives Lab are particularly resonant in light of the conflicts in the world today. Marshall Duke and I are currently expanding our work on family storytelling to encompass ways in which communities can cope through storytelling, working with the Museum of the Jewish People and the Tisch Center in Tel Aviv to develop workshops that help people come together to share their stories of current tragedy in the context of larger community histories. Today's stories are part of a larger story, and creating a tapestry across history and perspectives may help us heal.

Can stories help us heal even across seemingly unbridgeable gaps? That is a difficult question, but some research by Phil Hammack and his colleagues suggests that sharing stories among Israeli and Palestinian youth may begin a process of understanding even when the historical and political gaps seem cavernous.

So, tonight, eat dinner with your family. If the conversation becomes difficult, don't shy away; elicit the story behind it, listen to it, and share one of your own. Certainly, each of us has a story.

But as we come to understand that story as part of a larger whole, myriad stories of our closest family members, our intergenerational past, our community, and maybe even of the larger human community, our story and the stories of others take on complex and complimentary meanings that may help us understand ourselves and others in a deeper and more meaningful way. And that may help us connect to the human story.


Pilecki, A., & Hammack, P. L. (2014). Negotiating the past, imagining the future: Israeli and Palestinian narratives in intergroup dialog. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 43, 100-113.

Fivush, R., Bohanek, J. G., & Duke, M. (2010). The intergenerational self: Subjective perspective and family history. In Self continuity (pp. 131-143). Psychology Press.

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