I grew up in a family of story tellers and talkers. They’re known for chatting, for saying goodbye, and then taking 45 minutes to make it out the door. It’s what they’ve always done, tales of triumph and failure the narrative patches holding the pieces of the family quilt together.
This skill, then, should come naturally to me. That’s why an exchange with my daughter over a game of Uno unsettled me.
“I used to play Uno with my Papa,” I told Wren. “He’s the one who taught me how to play.”
“Like your Pappy. He was my grandfather.”
“Why have I never met him?” she asked.
“He died when I was your age.”
She looked sad, and I felt my stomach drop like an elevator on free fall. My grandfather was one of the biggest characters in my life, one of the most important people who played a role in my formative years and beyond. His death leveled me, and my nine-year-old daughter had no idea who he was. I’d never shown her pictures or told her stories.
His death was followed closely by the collapse of my parents’ marriage and the rearranging of family members that felt like tectonic plates shifting without end. I buried the pain, and in the process, I buried the memories.
I did exactly the opposite of what I should have done if my goal was to raise emotionally healthy children.
The importance of the narrative
My motive for keeping my family’s history quiet might have been to protect my kids from the hurt and confusion of death and divorce, or it might have been to avoid sharing my own mistakes and missteps from the past. Whatever the reason, it was the wrong choice. Researchers agree that children need to know that they have a place in a bigger story than their own.
Children who have what is called an intergenerational identity feel more in control of their lives, according to research by Dr. Marshall Duke and Dr. Robyn Fivush from Emory University. Knowing where they fit in a story also seems to paint a rosier view of the family overall, since children in the study who knew the most about their families viewed their family units in a more positive light.
Telling our kids family stories may even lower the chances of anxiety and depression, even when world events stand to trigger a negative response. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivush followed up with the kids who had participated in their study only months before. Those who knew they had a place in a larger family story were more resilient than those who scored low on what they knew about their families. An intergenerational identity helped serve as a shield between these kids and catastrophe.
There’s also the benefit of having kids who are less likely to become narcissist. Being a part of a bigger story means not being the center of the universe, a fact we want to instill in our children. We can give them both self-confidence and humility by sharing family stories, helping them develop a sense of self-worth and resilience without losing empathy and becoming solely self-focused.
Author A.J. Jacobs, organizer of the Global Family Reunion, points out another advantage of children knowing their family history: they may become interested in going even further back, looking deeper into genealogy. Their interests can create opportunities for them to find out that we live on a very interconnected planet. “It’s eye-opening,” Jacobs said during an interview. “It’s much harder to be racist and narrow-minded when you see how closely linked all the races are.”
How to tell the story
Not every narrative form is equal. Researchers recommend the oscillating family narrative when sharing family history with children. This style deals with both positive and negative events and enforces the strength of family and perseverance throughout. It avoids sharing only the ups or only the downs, instead presenting a more realistic view of life. Family life, like life in general, has good and bad.
I can use the oscillating family narrative to tell my kids about my younger years and all the memories I have with my parents and grandparents. That will eventually lead to divorce and death, obvious setbacks, but we can then move to stories about how we found ways to heal and move on. This leads to the family they have now, full of both biological and step-grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles who are focused on making a family environment for them.
Good can come from hard times, and that’s the point of the oscillating family narrative. Children will know not to expect everything to be perfect when raised on these types of stories, but they will know that even during trials, people persevere. Mistakes from our families’ pasts can serve as road maps for others, even if they are just evidence of what not to do.
Considering a child’s maturity level is key when sharing family tales. Being honest is always a win, but giving details that are appropriate to a child’s age and understanding is important. Dr. Alisha Griffith recommends parents “meet them on their level, be direct and honest, and use simple language that they would understand. It’s also important to listen to their concerns … and answer their questions.” The point of a family narrative isn’t to overwhelm kids with TMI but to allow them to see where they fit in the big picture.
Dr. Fivush created a “Do You Know?” questionnaire that asked children in the study to answer 20 questions about their family stories. It contains questions like: Do you know how your parents met? Do you know the source of your name? Do you know where some of your grandparents grew up? These questions are a great way to start the conversation.
When it’s time to share, there’s no one way to go about it. Family reunions are a place my late uncle entertained generations with his elaborate tales. Any meal or gathering where the family is together can be a time for sharing. One friend I have even videotaped her grandparents telling family stories from their lives. Those videos are now in the hands of younger generations, preserving family stories that can continue to be passed down.
Regular occurrences, like a game of Uno, can even spark memories and offer a time to share. Family stories can take the place of books during bedtime a couple of times a week.
The reaction when I finally started unearthing some memories to pass to my kids was priceless. They winced when they heard the one about how I accidentally hit my sister in the face with a bat, laughed at my Papa mistaking poop that had fallen from my sister’s diaper for chocolate (family stopped him before he ate it), and begged for more stories as bedtime approached.
It wasn’t difficult for me to see the immediate benefits of these stories. My kids laughed, they were engaged, and they seemed to feel they were growing in the knowledge they possessed about their family members. They are learning with each knew story that they are connected to people who succeed, fail, and find ways to overcome, and that’s a gift that can be passed down for generations to come.