This week’s blog was written by my colleague Melanie Vetter. Melanie’s passion is helping you use story to enhance connection and deepen bonds with the people who matter to you.
I’m pretty sure all of us parents want our children to have the tools to navigate the world, make decisions and be happy. Resilience, compassion, gratitude, confidence and grit are all tools or traits I hope my children develop, as these will help them lead happy, purposeful and meaningful lives.
What if I told you that one of the best ways to help your kids gain these skills, as well as a sense of belonging and connection, is to share family stories?
A Personal Story
My husband and I met in an eight man rowing shell. He was the “stroke” of the boat, the rower who sits in the first position opposite the coxswain. I was the coxswain, the person who yells at the rowers and steers the boat. When I wasn’t yelling, “take a power ten” in his face, and the boat had eased off and slowed down to a paddle, we got to know each other in the quiet of the morning river.
After rowing season was over, we discovered our shared passion for the outdoors, history and good red wine. And we fell in love. That was 38 years ago.
We have told this story often to our three children. It comes up when we talk about how we went to school together, or when we kick the kids off the Internet to get outside and hike with us, or have discussions about history and what it teaches us.
My husband tells the story in a jovial joking manner, claiming that I fell in love with his great arm muscles. I, being more serious, point out that although I admired his athleticism, it was his incredible passion for learning and his strong ethical beliefs that drew me to him.
However it is told, the story is now part of the family lore.
It’s just one family story among the many we tell our kids along with the stories of when they were born and the things they did when they were little, the stories about the two of us growing up and about their grandparents before that.
Why Are Stories Important?
Stories like these share values and attitudes. They show triumph and hardship and perseverance. They connect us to our clan. They are most often filled with love.
But the stories do more.
Two researchers at Emory University, Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivush have discovered that knowing family stories correlates with higher levels of self-esteem and confidence, self control and autonomy, resilience and grit. Dr. Duke says that children who have the most self-confidence have a strong “intergenerational self.” The way to achieve that is through telling and retelling family stories, especially family narratives that share both the ups and downs.
Taking time to tell stories, asking grandparents or other family members to share stories, and creating your own family stories is powerful. Bruce Feiler, author of The Secrets of Happy Families, writes, “The bottom line: if you want a happier family, 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.”
But how do you tell these stories?
3 Ways to Share Family Stories Together Now
We’re right in the middle of the holiday season. For me that means more together time around the table. It might also mean grandparents and other relatives are around too. Take advantage of these times together to share, tell and ask about stories.
You can share “Remember When” stories.
These kinds of stories can connect to a particularly memorable holiday or family trip but they can also just be stories you remember. Here are some ideas of holidays that didn’t go as planned or that contained a surprise or special event such as:
- Remember the time when we thought the snowstorm would keep Uncle Sam and Aunt Beth from joining us but they borrowed a four-wheel drive and made it through?
- Remember the Christmas Grandpa gave joke gifts from the swap shop? They were hilarious and yet somehow perfectly fit each recipient.
- Remember the Thanksgiving when Karen went into labor just as the turkey came out of the oven?
- Remember when we went for a special dinner by sleigh ride for New Year’s and they sat us next to the guitarist with the horrible voice? We shook with silent laughter the whole time.
These kinds of starters often get people talking. “Oh, yes. And remember how …” and then they start adding their own details and memories.
You don’t have to focus on the holidays, you could focus on, special family trips, stories about growing up or whatever you feel like sharing.
You can just tell stories.
Some stories will go unremembered until you find an object or return to an activity that reminds you. Use your pictures, journals, or scrapbooks to find memories to share. Telling family stories is a great way to solidify these memories.
Maybe you curl up in front of the fire in winter and remember the highlights of the past year or of when you were a child, or grandparents can share stories of their holiday memories. Some stories will take on a life of their own and get pulled out again and again.
Tell the stories, and if you want, write them down.
You can ask about stories.
Ask questions. This is one of the most direct ways to get stories started. If you sense some resistance, start with stories you know family members like to tell. Be sensitive to sensitive topics, but don’t avoid them.
Try questions like:
- Where did you and ___ meet? (Personalize this one—Where did you meet Pa? How did you meet Uncle Ben?)
- Where did you grow up? What was it like?
- What is the craziest thing you ever did?
- What’s one story you’ve never told?
Don’t think of this as a checklist of questions. Ask questions that most appeal to you. Focus on listening to the answers. Let the storyteller finish their story before you jump in with follow up questions.
Sometimes one question will launch a story that reminds someone else of another and another. Other times, you will need to probe more if you’re interested.
However you do it, I hope you enjoy the fun and power of your family’s stories!
To help you be ready for family stories I’ve created a guide with questions and how to ask about family stories. You can get your free copy here: Get the Questions to Ask to Learn About Your Family Stories
Melanie Vetter is founder of Wellfleet Circle, where she loves helping you discover and write your stories for yourself and others. Writing your stories can change your outlook and lead to more purpose and meaning in your life. Through sharing your stories, you’ll deepen connections to family, friends, mentors, even your community. You can connect with Melanie here.