How important is knowing stories about your loved ones? What can they teach you and your children? What impact do they have on their lives?
What I Learned from my Grandpa’s Stories
I loved hearing my Grandpa Peila’s stories growing up. It brought me back to a different time. Times were a little slower then. They also taught me that the old adage is true; the more things change, the more they stay the same.
My grandpa was a child of Italian immigrants. His parents didn’t know english. He went to a one room schoolhouse. (His older brother ended up marrying the teacher.) These are some of his antics at school:
“We were real mischievous at school. We’d have these 22 bullets and we’d cut the lead off them so they wouldn’t be dangerous, Then we’d ask if we could put coal in the stove. Then when we’d put coal in the stove we’d throw in a handful of the bullets in there and they’d start exploding after we went back to our seats. After a while there’d be a BANG and then a BANG, BANG! We thought it was great fun. That’s when we had that teacher that was no good and we were mischievous Oh, she was just barely out of high school, and she didn’t know how to teach, I guess. She sat up there and read love stories all the time, and I guess we got the best out of her. Finally, they fired her.
“We broke in the school house one Saturday and put a bell upstairs in the attic and ran a string down so we could ring the bell. But we never got to use that because that’s when they fired her and they put the man teacher in there and we were scared to use it. He tore the string out and that was the end of that. We were just going to ring the bell, and she wouldn’t know where it was coming from. One time there was just four of us left in school. Two girls, and Lou and I. that’s all. That’s all eight grades. People kept taking their kids out of school ‘cause they weren’t learning anything. That’s why I’m so smart, because we kept going.”
The stories of his youth brought me hope when my son and his friend set fire on the lazy-susan in the garage with gasoline. They wanted to see how the fire would spin. (Warning-do not try this at home.) Or any of the other crazy things he did. Maybe my boys inherited their sense of humor and adventure from him, along with his craziness.
Knowing stories about his youth and life taught me so many things. He was fun, and he always liked telling stories. He and my grandma had a great love story. They taught me about love and sacrifice. My grandma and grandma died within three months of each other.
Another thing that he taught me was being happy in whatever circumstances you have. His father was a miner and died when he was four years old from black lung. His mother died when he was twelve. He struck out on his own when was he was sixteen along with his brother. My grandma had major health problems their whole marriage. They never owned a home. Yet, through it all, they were both two of the happiest people I have ever known.
The Science of Telling Family Stories
I really don’t know to what extent their lives and stories had an impact on my own. I do know it was a powerful one.
Stories of our parents, grandparents and other relatives give us a sense of identity and purpose. Stories connect us. We all need to feel connected. We feel a sense of belonging to a larger family. Research shows that children that know stories about their parents, grandparents, and other family members are more resilient, self-confident and make families work more efficiently. It has been shown to be the number one predictor of a child’s happiness.
Dr. Sarah Duke works with children with disabilities. She has stated, “The (children) that know a lot about their families tend to do better when they face challenges.”¹ Her husband, Dr. Marshall Duke and along with a colleague, Robyn Fivush at Emory University developed a questionnaire to test this hypothesis.¹ ² They asked children and adolescents simple questions that included: Do you know how your parents met? How did you grandparents meet? Do you know some of the jobs that your parents had when they were young? Do you know of an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know some things that happened to your mom or dad when they were in school? Who in the family do you act most like?
Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivush asked those questions almost 100 families and taped several of their dinner table conversations. Some of these were stories told around the dinner table were about experiences the family shared together, such as family vacations, and some were stories about family history, such as stories about the parent’s childhood. They compared those conversations and the battery of psychological tests the children took. The more that the children/adolescents knew about their family’s history, the “stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. The “Do You Know?” scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness” (In Feiler 2013).¹ Adolescents who report knowing more stories about their familial past show higher levels of emotional well-being, and also higher levels of identity achievement, even when controlling for general level of family functioning.
“We were blown away,” Dr. Duke said.¹
Later that year, the nation felt the terror of 9-11. The researches went back and questioned the children. “Once again,” Dr. Duke said, “the ones who knew more about their families proved to be more resilient, meaning they could moderate the effects of stress.”
Why does knowing stories about your grandfather’s school years help a child with an event as major as a terror attack? “The answers have to do with a child’s sense of being part of a larger family,” Dr. Duke said. FamilySearch’s CEO Steve Rockwood said, “Psychologists have found that children that have a strong sense of family heritage are much more resilient than those who don’t, much better able to weather difficulties and overcome challenges.” Emory University had a press release about Dr. Duke’s and his colleagues’ aforementioned study. They showed “higher levels of emotional well-being, and also higher levels of identity achievement, even when controlling for general level of family functioning” (Emory University press release, Mar. 3, 2010).³
Types of Stories
Dr. Duke continues to explain that there are three types of narratives:
The first narrative is more factual and not very personal. He gives the example, “Son, when we came to this country, we had nothing. Our family worked. We opened a store. Your grandfather went to high school. Your father went to college. And now you. …”
Second is the descending narrative: “Sweetheart, we used to have it all. Then we lost everything.”
“The most healthful narrative,” Dr. Duke continued, “is the third one. It’s called the oscillating family narrative: ‘Dear, let me tell you, we’ve had ups and downs in our family. We built a family business. Your grandfather was a pillar of the community. Your mother was on the board of the hospital. But we also had setbacks. You had an uncle who was once arrested. We had a house burn down. Your father lost a job. But no matter what happened, we always stuck together as a family.’ ”
These helpful narratives can have a powerful impact on children. Bruce Feiler said, “The children that understand that they come from an oscillating narrative know when they hit hardships (and they will hit hardships), know that they can get through them. They can push through not because of what they saw in a movie or in a book, but because of people in their own family” (Feiler, 2016 ). He emphasizes that it is important not just to tell the fun and positive stories, but to also tell the hard stories in an age-appropriate way. Then, our children can think back on how their family pushed through and stuck together or learned from hardships or mistakes.
These beliefs about how we can handle life have a big impact on it. Harvard professor Shawn Achor cites research that shows how “explanatory style—how we choose to explain the nature of past events—has a crucial impact on our happiness and future success. People with an optimistic explanatory style interpret adversity as being local and temporary . . . while those with a pessimistic explanatory style see these events as more global and permanent. Their beliefs then directly affect their actions” (Achor,2010, pp. 187–88).
How to Begin Telling Family Stories
Ask yourself: Do your children and grandchildren know stories about the good and the painful, the exciting times and the mundane? Starting to tell your and your family stories can be easy and fun. Sitting around the dinner table is a great time to talk about everyone’s day and tell stories. My children’s grandma loves telling stories of her life at the dinner table. Remember fond memories as you see something that brings back the memories. Tell stories as you do chores or ride in the car. Make family history part of your daily life.
Sometimes you can just pull out your phone and start recording someone telling stories. Another idea is to create a picture book. They say pictures are worth 1,000 words. You can add to that by adding in-depth captions or descriptions to help you and your family understand what is happening in the picture. No matter how you tell the stories, remember that family stories make an important difference in our lives.
FamilySearch has made it easy to record these memories. The #52Project has a series of questions or memory triggers that has been divided into 12 themes, from “Goals & Achievements” to “Education & School” to “Holidays & Traditions.” The questions are available for download, and you’ll also see a different question highlighted each week on Instagram (@FamilySearch) and the FamilySearch Facebook Page.
Telling stories can be done in simple ways. Remember, the some of the greatest and most powerful stories that you can tell your family are your own family stories.
Karen is a wife, mother, and grandmother. She enjoys family history and is a genealogy amateur. She enjoys traveling with her family and is a travel agent at Lone Peak Travel.
¹ Feiler B. (2013, Mar 15) The stories that bind us. New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/17/fashion/the-family-stories-that-bind-us-this-life.html
² Fivush, R., Duke, M., & Bohanek, J. G. (2010). “Do you know…” The power of family history in adolescent identity and well-being. Retrieved from: http://ncph.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/The-power-of-family-history-in-adolescent-identity.pdf
³ Emery University Press Release (2010, Mar 13) Children Benefit if they know about their relatives, study finds. Retrieved from: http://shared.web.emory.edu/emory/news/releases/2010/03/children-benefit-if-they-know-about-their-relatives-study-finds.html#.WaUYMmVkBFK
Feiler, B. (2016, Feb 4) Keynote Address. RootsTech. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i8sZl-Ny2D0