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Collective Stories in Families Teach Us About Ourselves

Parents and adolescents who share stories learn about each other and themselves.

Recently, I heard a presentation by a young playwright, talking about when he heard the actors playing out their parts of his play, he learned something new about his characters—that in the act of bringing his characters onto the stage and giving them voice, the playwright learned things about the characters that were new and fresh. He used the term “collective storytelling.” How much of our own family storytelling is like this? Do we also learn something new about ourselves when someone else tells our story? Research from the Family Narratives Lab suggests that we do.

I have already talked about some of the Family Narratives Lab research in my previous blogs, where we ask adolescents to tell us stories that they might know about when their parents were growing up. We are interested in how these kinds of intergenerational narratives help adolescents understand who they are in the world—and we have found, not only that most adolescents know these kinds of stories, but that these stories matter. Adolescents who tell more coherent and elaborated stories about their parent’s childhoods show higher levels of self-esteem, competence, and fewer behavior problems.

Most interesting, most of the adolescents make an explicit link between their own experience and the experience of their parents. They use the story told by the parent to understand something about themselves—for example, after telling a story about his mother standing up to a bully on behalf on another child, one adolescent ended that story by saying “So that’s why I always speak up for myself. Because she (my mother) was so brave to do that.” Clearly, this adolescent is learning something important about who his mother was and is as a person, as well as an important moral lesson about the world.

But here is another interesting wrinkle—in some of our studies, we go back to the parent and ask them to tell us the story that the adolescent just told us. So we tell the mother that her son just told us about the time she stood up to a bully at a bus stop, and can the mother also tell us about this experience? Parents are often surprised at the story the adolescent told—surprised that their child even knows the story, that they were listening when the story was told! Often, parents think that these stories “go in one ear and out the other” but they rarely do. Adolescents are soaking these stories up to learn about who they are and who they should be.

But the parents also learn something about themselves in this process. As they hear the story as the adolescent tells it, they see themselves through their child’s eyes—sometimes for the good, perhaps sometimes not. But in hearing their own story as told by their child, they learn something new and important about themselves.

Kate McLean and her students, at Western Washington University, have been looking at stories mothers tell about their own experiences in conversation with their adolescents. So, in this study, it is not the adolescent telling the story previously told by the mother, as in our studies, but the story as it unfolds as the mother and adolescent talk about it together. They looked at how this kind of collective storytelling changes as children develop from early to late adolescence. With older adolescents, mothers show more of their own vulnerability, especially around sad events. They also talk more about who they are outside of being a parent—that their identity as a parent is certainly important but it is not the only thing that defines who they are as a person. And adolescents seem to resonate to these stories, sharing their own personal vulnerabilities in a more equalitarian way. McLean argues that these moments of collective storytelling between mothers and adolescents are opportunities for the mothers, as well as the adolescents, to explore who they are and how they make sense of their experiences in the world, and signal an increasingly equal relationship between parent and child as adolescents strive for autonomy.

So, sharing family stories is certainly about passing down life lessons to the next generation. But it is also about hearing our own stories reflected through the eyes of others and learning something new about ourselves. As the playwright I was listening to said, it is when his words were voiced by others that he learned who the characters really were, and what the play was really all about.


McLean, K. C., & Morrison-Cohen, S. (2013). Moms telling tales: maternal identity development in conversations with their adolescents about the personal past. Identity, 13(2), 120-139.