Telling Tales that Matter


Credit: Some rights reserved by woodleywonderworks

By Chris Little

As a parent you want to equip your kids to handle whatever comes their way. You buy them helmets to wear when they ride their bikes, and shin guards for soccer practice. But how do you protect their hearts, their emotions, for the inevitable bruises they’ll receive? In this New York Times article, Bruce Feiler writes that the best way to equip your kids with emotional resilience is by telling them stories — specifically stories about their family.

Feiler describes his search after a strained family reunion for what he called the “secret sauce” that holds a family together. “What are the ingredients that make some families effective, resilient, happy?” he asks.

After years of research he came up with an unexpected answer: “The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative,” he writes.

Feiler suggests playing a game of 20 questions with your kids. Ask them questions like: Where did your grandparents grow up? Where did your dad (or mom) and I go to high school? Where did we meet? What is the story of your birth? And others like: How did your grandparents weather the Depression? How about World War II? Even: Where were we on 9/11?

Kids who can answer those questions correctly, Feiler says, have been found to be more resilient when faced with challenges, have a greater sense of control over their lives, and exhibit higher self-esteem. In fact, the ability to answer questions about their family history is the “best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness,” he writes. The reason may have to do with your child feeling like she’s part of a larger social group, a larger narrative, a history.

So naturally the first thing I did after reading this article was ask my kids if they knew where their dad and I met, and where their grandparents grew up, and how their great-grandparents got through the Depression. I was happy to learn that they could answer fairly well — and it was interesting to identify the gaps in their knowledge — but even more gratifying were the discussions we got into as a result. We’ve done a lot more talking about our family history lately.

Feiler points out in his article that there are different ways to tell your family story. There’s what he calls the “ascending narrative,” where you might describe your family’s rise from humble roots to a position of relative prosperity. There’s the “descending narrative,” where you might focus on your family’s fall from heights of prestige or wealth, perhaps in the Depression or as recently as the Great Recession. But the most helpful way to frame your family story, Feiler writes, is called the “oscillating family narrative,” where you point out your family’s ups and downs over the years or generations, and how you’ve always stuck together and supported each other to the best of your ability.

This might be a challenge for some of us, granted. We might be carrying a family narrative in our heads that’s been passed down through generations, one that could be either ascending or descending. But I suppose for the most part we have a choice in how we tell our family stories to our kids — and it might be good for us to look at how we talk about our families and see if we can make adjustments. We can choose to frame our histories in terms of an oscillation, sharing the good times and acknowledging the bad times, always looking for ways to emphasize family cohesion.

For example, I can tell the story of how my grandmother’s family lost everything in the Depression and struggled mightily to avoid going on “relief,” of how their house burned down, and of how my great-uncle failed in his first attempt to win acceptance to the Naval Academy — or I can tell the story of how the family moved to a new city and started a new business and eventually regained their footing, and about how my great-uncle eventually got into the Naval Academy, even serving at Pearl Harbor. Better yet — I can tell both stories. There are ups and downs in every family. What’s important, Feiler says, is to share with your kids the stories of your family’s perseverance and courage and commitment to each other, through thick and thin. It helps them to know they’re part of something bigger than they are. Something that lasts.

“Decades of research have shown that most happy families communicate effectively,” Feiler writes. “But talking doesn’t mean simply ‘talking through problems,’ as important as that is. Talking also means telling a positive story about yourselves. When faced with a challenge, happy families, like happy people, just add a new chapter to their life story that shows them overcoming the hardship. This skill is particularly important for children, whose identity tends to get locked in during adolescence.

“[I]f you want a happier family,” he concludes, “create, refine and retell the story of your family’s positive moments and your ability to bounce back from the difficult ones. That act alone may increase the odds that your family will thrive for many generations to come.”

You can read the full article here.

9 thoughts on “Telling Tales that Matter

  1. Pingback: Telling Family Stories at Off the Merry-Go-Round. | Christine Brandt Little

  2. Acknowledging this is great, getting to know your family and ancesters helps you later in life whether you realize it or not, you don’t have that “I wunder” what my family members were like, their personalities, habits they acquired, food they ate, place they lived etc…. I do realize not everyone has the family ties to gather this information, but may get bits and peices from historical records.

    • This is an excellent point – not everyone has access to family stories extending back generations. But we can treasure the stories we’re creating right now! We can share with our kids the stories of our own childhoods, and about our growing up and establishing our families. These stories might not extend back generations, but they can still be stories about courage and resilience. And we can still share them. Thanks for your comment!

  3. Chris – This is a beautifully written piece. I wanted to add that for adoptive parents, in addition to telling your family’s story, telling your child’s story is extremely important and the stories you tell are more two-fold. One, their birth story and the special way they came into your life – the more knowledge you share with them (of course a little at a time and age-appropriate) the more they will accept and embrace being adopted. Two, the story of your own family – because you are not related through a blood tie only says that you are bonded by something even more special … the choice you made to become family!

    Thank you for the excellent suggestions on how to tell your family story as well. For our family which is built by adoption, this has meant designing and printing several small, hardback books (through Shutterfly); each telling a story from my son’s life. For example, his ‘Baby Book’ from this “series” is different from his large baby book with all those sweet photos from his early life. This smaller treasure book actually tells details about his birth story and how we came into each others’ lives. There is also ‘My Grandparents and Me’ and ‘My Baptism.’ Soon to come … ‘These Are a Few of My Favorite Things.’ For this one, I may not even include narrative text, rather just let the pictures of all the fun he has had so far in his little life tell this story!

  4. Pingback: The Reluctant Family Historian | Off the Merry-Go-Round

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  6. Pingback: Wrinkles in Time: When your life echoes the past — and why that’s really awesome | Off the Merry-Go-Round

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