The following is by contributor Amanda Morgan of Not Just Cute.
Iremember the first time I really became personally interested in the stories of my ancestors. I was a newly minted teenager when a family friend pointed out how much I resembled my great grandmother. She was referring to a picture I had seen on a shelf my whole life. I had noticed her, and probably even been interested from time to time, but it wasn’t until after that comment that I suddenly became interested in her as a part of myself. From that moment on I didn’t just look at her picture, I looked for myself there. Her long, dark hair, the shape of her lips, the outline of her face. It was suddenly not about features, but about connections.
My great -grandmother died when my grandpa was just a toddler, so my family didn’t have much in the way of memories to rely on, but what we did have were her stories. These were handed down verbally through the family, and also recorded in a journal that she kept. And just as with her picture, I began to look for myself in her stories as well.
Whether it was sharing her drive to learn as she wrote about begging for permission to leave the farm to attend college or the correlation of our tom-boy reputations, I began to have a personal connection to her stories. They became part of my personal narrative.
Strengthening Families with Stories
Researchers like Dr. Robyn Fivush are studying family narratives and the effects they have on children. What they’re finding is that the sharing of family stories and memories help as the children begin to build a sense of self and construct their own identities, and promote social and emotional well-being.
From inspiring stories about great -grandparents finding their way through the Great Depression to the familiar tale of how Dad broke his collarbone while on his paper route, the act of sharing family stories shape who we are, our personal identities, and our connections. They help us bond with our families and find our place in the grander scheme of life.
As Dr. Fivush talks about shared family narratives, she outlines two types of stories. There are the “Today I” stories as we talk about the ordinary experiences that happen every day, and also the intergenerational stories that pass verbal histories all along the family line. Both types build strong families and a healthy sense of self.
Photo by Paul Schultz
Just as the types of family narratives can vary from the ordinary to the exceptional, the ways we invite the sharing of these stories varies as well. Here are a few ideas to help you be more intentional in building and communicating your family narrative.
Share a meal.
The simple act of eating meals together encourages your family to share many of those “Today I” narratives Dr. Fivush speaks of. Perhaps this is just part of why family meal time has been correlated to so many positive outcomes for children and adolescents.
My husband’s parents instituted the practice of nightly talks when their children were very young. Each child (all eight!) would get one-on-one time with a parent to talk about the ups and downs of their day. It’s a tradition that has been carried down to their children’s own families, though the grandkids still revel at the chance to have Grammy “do talks” where she spins tales of their parents’ childhoods or her own. Create spaces in the day for individual connection and conversation.
Any time my dad and his brothers got together we could be sure of one thing: they would break out the pinochle cards and laugh raucously as they playfully argued over the correct details of family lore. A gathering can be a formal family reunion, or a casual family barbecue. Whatever the original purpose, it seems to be a sure thing that when families gather, stories will be shared.
Look to the past.
Connect your children to those family members who have already passed on. Having pictures of your ancestors in your home can spark conversations about their legacies and narratives. Celebrate their birthdays by sharing their stories, eating their favorite foods, or giving service to others as a way to honor them. These traditions will become like your family’s own special holidays.
Create your story.
Last summer, I read A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller. It really struck me that just as a writer carefully crafts the components of a good story, we can be just as intentional in creating the story of our lives. The book is a wonderful read and prompted me to write the post, The Power of the Memorable Scene. Over at Simple Mom, Tsh has been reading the same book and has written inspiring posts here and here about living a good story. Remember that sharing the stories of your family’s past is powerful, but also realize that you are in the middle of creating the stories you will share tomorrow.
What do you do to consciously create and share your family’s story?