Sharing family stories can strengthen connections and build family resilience.
As we gather ’round Thanksgiving tables, some 66% of us do not want to talk about politics, even though it dominates the news. No worries — just share some family stories!
November is National Family Story Month and the dinner table is the perfect place to share. Kids — at least my kids — always want to know “what life was like” back in the Dark Ages of growing up in the 1960s and ’70s. One recent conversation went like this:
Young adult daughter: “I hate dating apps. The men on there are terrible.”
Me: “Gosh, I’ve heard. I’m so glad there were no dating apps when I was dating your dad.”
YA daughter: “But you had cellphones, right?”
Me: “No — this was before cellphones.” (We dated in the mid-1980s, married in 1986).
YA daughter with shocked expression on her face: “But how did you know when he wanted to go out with you???”
Me, laughing: “He knocked on my door or called the landline.”
Ah, the good old days.
Family stories often take distinctly unfunny times and with the benefit of time, turn them into humorous family lore. When my husband was growing up, he spent a number of years living in “tornado alley.” One day when he was a teen, after a tornado watch was issued and the winds were picking up, his parents asked him to bring in the trash cans so they wouldn’t blow away.
Scary at the time, but funny now, my husband regales the kids about the wind not only blowing the trash cans away, but giving him such a boost from behind, he felt like his stride had been doubled. He turned and fought his way back to the house, duck walking to keep himself low to the ground so he wouldn’t be blown away. His family had been watching and laughing at the sight of a gangly teen being blown down the road. He can’t tell the story now without laughing, almost before he gets started.
His story reminds me of my own wind story. When I was a teen, I lived in the south of France with my family, and every winter we got to experience “Le Mistral,” the strong winds of Provence. The wind there is rumored to cause madness in adults, naughty behavior in children and, according to local expressions, can “blow the tail off a donkey.” It is such a part of life in that region, that the local “santons,” or Nativity figures, often have villagers holding on to their hats and coats. I remember having to lean so far into the wind to walk that if it suddenly stopped, I would have hit the ground. It’s no wonder my mom held on to the hands of her 3-year-old twins when we went outside during “Le Mistral.”
My Utah-raised children have never encountered wind like my husband and I have — but now at least they know what to do (hint: don’t chase trash cans during tornadoes). In all seriousness, sharing family stories can create a family culture that is not only binding, but resilient.
Researchers in the late 1990s and early 2000s found that children who know their own family stories show the most resilience. There are three types of family stories: ascending, descending and oscillating. The healthiest of these types of stories are the oscillating stories, meaning stories that both rise and fall. “I worked hard, got a great job but then was laid off. I was depressed at being laid off, but decided to see it as an opportunity to reconsider my career path and now I have a job in a different field that I love even more.” It’s the story of the normal ups and downs of life and can offer family members a story they can relate to.
It was not too surprising to me to learn that the research also found it’s not merely a recitation of family facts that creates and strengthens family resilience, but the use of story. The kind of stories told by the mamas and grandmamas around the dinner table, on vacations and during the holidays — those kinds of stories.
A couple of caveats: some families and some stories are dysfunctional and broken. I am not suggesting anyone retraumatize themselves by putting themselves in harm’s way — physical, psychological or emotional. Our family has some boundaries on storytelling, too. We aren’t OK with stories that are designed to make fun of others, or that promote hate and/or discrimination. We do, however, talk about what it’s like to experience bullying, hate and/or discrimination. We even talk about how the Thanksgiving story looks entirely different when told by Native Americans. There are lessons there too.