We were late for school, stuck behind a slow-moving garbage truck, and the kids were bickering loudly over who was to blame. Instead of my usual go-to responses (negotiating peace talks, cranking up the radio, or shouting them down), on this particular morning I thought of a story.
“Have I ever told you about the time my cousins Tim and Pat tricked the garbage men?”
I recounted the story of my cousins mimicking a cranky garbage man’s whistle and triggering the truck to pull forward just as the grump tried to empty a trash can into it. That story led to other well-worn tales of my siblings’ and cousins’ various escapades until, before we knew it, we’d arrived at school.
My kids love hearing family stories, whether I’m describing a funny incident from their own toddler days or recounting some prank that occurred between my siblings thirty years ago.
There’s timeless adolescent humor (one brother dares another to ride down the block in his underwear), the occasional moral takeaway (mom always finds out in the end!), and the pleasure of seeing my kids tease my now-adult siblings at family gatherings.
But it turns out that sharing family stories might give us all a whole lot more.
Not long after I told that story in the car, I heard an interview with author Bruce Feiler, who was talking about resiliency in kids, and research showing correlation between strong kids and how much they knew about their parents’ lives. “The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative, ” Feiler wrote on the topic in the New York Times, discussing something called the “Do-You-Know scale.”
Developed by researcher Marshall Duke and colleagues, the Do-You-Know scale asked kids 20 questions on topics like where their parents had grown up and gone to school, where they’d met, and whether the kids knew stories related to their own or their siblings’ births.
According to Feiler, higher scores on the scale were associated with “higher levels of self-esteem, an internal locus of control (a belief in one’s own capacity to control what happens to him or her), better family functioning, lower levels of anxiety, fewer behavioral problems, and better chances for good outcomes if a child faces educational or emotional/behavioral difficulties. “
Of course, it’s not the information itself that gives kids a boost. It’s everything that happens to make transmitting that knowledge possible. When we share family stories with our kids, we are taking the time to connect with them, and to help them understand that they are part of a larger story. We are teaching them to put their experiences, good and bad, into a larger context.
I think about the family stories I grew up hearing: My mother as a little girl, determined to cut the tags off a new dress herself and snipping a hole in it, and my grandmother sewing it up without an I-told-you-so. My father as a young kid with a newspaper route, tearfully kicking at the door of the family who never paid him, then selling extra papers to make up the loss. Those vivid stories offered me glimpses into who my parents were — and a better understanding of who I was as the daughter they raised.
And what about the not-so-happy stories of the past? The stories of accidents and arguments, of misunderstandings and mistakes? Those stories, it turns out, may be the most important of all — as long as we know how to frame them.
“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,” Feiler explains. He tells parents: “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.”
Reading about the Do-You-Know scale and the work of Marshall Duke, I immediately started ticking off stories from my family’s history, and my husband’s, that I know my children can already retell. And I made a mental list of others that I’ll make a point to share.
Who would have imagined, on that stressful morning, that a brother-and-sister-blowout on an already-late-for-school day could have such a positive ripple effect?
(See that? Already I’m learning to frame our stories differently.)
Photo credit: Megan Dempsey