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Be Thankful for Your Families of Choice

A Personal Perspective: Family stories are important for all types of families.

Key points

  • Not all families are blood relations, but all families create bonds through stories.
  • For academics, family trees and family stories provide an important sense of identity.
  • In this post, I honor my academic family and especially my mentor, Katherine Nelson.

This Thanksgiving season was bittersweet for me. As always, I reveled in the telling and retelling of family stories over the Thanksgiving meal—a meal we spend every year with my husband’s cousins and family friends. For me, there is not a single blood relation at the table, yet I feel folded into a warm and loving family as we cook and eat and share stories of our lives. This type of family, now often called a “family of choice,” suggests that relationships among family and friends are becoming more complex in modern society as individual lives become more mobile both socially and geographically.

The Academic Family

And then a few days later I was reminded of another form of family—the academic family. My graduate mentor, Katherine Nelson, died in August 2018 (see Society for Research in Child Development obituary), and her in-person memorial was delayed due to the pandemic. We finally decided to gather (via Zoom), thanks to Joan Lucariello, one of Katherine’s students and one of my graduate cohorts, this past week to honor Katherine’s memory and her legacy.

Katherine was a brilliant theorist, writing numerous books and articles that galvanized the field of developmental science and are still used across the curriculum today. During her academic career, she mentored 40 students through their Ph.D. Many of us, along with a couple of postdoctoral scholars she mentored, gathered to mark her passing. And we told stories. I was reminded of family funerals, where mourners cry and laugh, and join in sharing stories of their loved one. Katherine was most definitely part of my family.

Academic families are families of choice. They are not blood relations, but they are woven into our everyday lives and become part of our own identity and story. I worked with Katherine every day for 4 years as I worked toward my Ph.D., and she knew more about my day-to-day life than my own family members did. Moreover, she understood my intellectual curiosity and she nurtured my thirst for exploration and investigation of human development: How do we come to remember our experiences?; How do families reminisce about the past in ways that facilitate or possibly hinder the child developing their own sense of self?; and How do family stories inform individual self-development? She continued to be my mentor and my friend for the next 40 years.

As each of us shared our stories of Katherine, of our interactions, our work together, our shared sense of meaning, I came to understand that we were a family. A family shares a way of looking at the world, of understanding people and each other, a shared sense of purpose and meaning. Katherine created this among her students; in addition to the wisdom of her theoretical vision, she embraced all of us as unique individuals, and, yet, we were all part of a larger group identity. We were a family.

Indeed, within academia, we claim our academic heritage—academic children and grandchildren— and we create academic trees of who studied with whom through the generations. It is a point of pride to be an academic “descendant” of a great thinker!

Why We Create Families of Choice

Why are these kinds of associations so important to us? Why do we create “family” with our friends and close co-workers? Why do we need to call them “family of choice”?

Research from the Family Narratives Lab, which I direct at Emory University, may help provide the answer. Young adults who know stories about their families are more emotionally attached to their families; they engage in higher levels of trust and communication with each other. These young adults also show higher self-esteem and higher sense of meaning and purpose in life. Stories about friends do not carry these same benefits. Indeed, even for family stories, it is only when there is a deep identification with the protagonist of the story that we see these positive effects. People become “family” when we identify with them, when we see them as connected in important ways to our own being in the world, and when the lessons of their lives become the lessons of our lives.

As I listened to the stories told about Katherine Nelson by her former students, I heard stories of how to think about and conduct research with young children, how to be a good mentor oneself, and how to balance a successful career and family life. All these stories created a sense of our own identities, how we lived in the world and created our own professional and personal lives.

Katherine Nelson was a remarkable woman, among the most brilliant minds I have ever encountered. But she struggled to attain her professional stature during a time when women were openly discriminated against. She married and had two daughters before embarking on her professional career. She was told again and again the obstacles she would have to overcome to get a doctorate, a job, and tenure. She had to convince the male-dominated UCLA graduate program that she was serious and smart and worthy of consideration. She had to get straight “A”s on a series of undergraduate courses and a perfect score on the Graduate Record Exam. So, as she said, “I just did it.” Every time I struggle in my own academic career, I hear Katherine’s story in my ear: “Robyn, just do it.” And I do.

Thank you, Katherine.


Pahl, R., & Spencer, L. (2004). Personal communities: Not simply families of ‘fate’or ‘choice’. Current sociology, 52(2), 199-221.Pahl, R., & Spencer, L. (2004). Personal communities: Not simply families of ‘fate’or ‘choice’. Current sociology, 52(2), 199-221.