Here Is Why You Should Share Family Stories

In 1902, 16 years old and alone, my grandmother set sail from Cork, Ireland, to a new life in America. She landed in New York and found work as a maid with a wealthy family whose physician suggested she train as a nurse. She didn’t have a high school diploma but talked her way into nursing school. After graduating, she joined the Red Cross and was deployed to French hospitals near the front lines of World War I. Terrified by all she witnessed, Grandma made a promise that if she survived she’d to go to Mass daily – twice on Sunday – and did almost to the day she died.

campfireOver many years, my father told that and other tales, especially during the summer as we gathered around the campfire (aka a picnic table). It turns out that sharing family stories with adult children and grandchildren is more than a pleasant pastime. Research has found that a strong narrative helps build strong family bonds. And, one-size stories fit all generations, says Natalie Merrill, a Ph.D. student and researcher in the Family Narratives Lab at Emory University. For adults at midlife and older, passing down lessons and values through stories enhances a sense of well-being. For younger generations, “Evidence suggests that the more children know about their family history, the less anxiety, less depression and higher self-esteem they exhibit,” says Merrill.

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If you’re digging in the memory bank for stories, begin with the family history, from grandparents and their lives, through how parents met, to the story of children’s own early lives. Emory research shows that young adults especially connect with stories about their parents, says Merrill: “They’ll recount that their dad was goofy and mom didn’t like him and he asked her out five times before she finally said yes.”

While the peaks of a family history are important, so are the valleys; there are lessons to be learned from failure. Another Emory study asked students to recall when their parents did something wrong. “We thought we’d get rule-breaking and similar stories, but we also got a lot of stories of regrets: regrets about not going to a certain college or not working hard enough when they were younger,” Merrill says.

Another way to think about stories is by types. Tales of regret are called “directive”; they help to guide behavior (don‘t do as I did). A second type is “social bonding” (sharing a memory of playing a sport or cooking a family feast). The third type is “personal identity” (here’s the family stock you come from).

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My father particularly liked to share family stock stories, especially about Grandma. Receiving payment for her service after the war, she used it to visit her parents in Ireland and pay for electric service into their cottage. Money gone, she rejoined the Red Cross and spent a year nursing in war-torn Serbia before going back to America and continuing her adventures, which still provide lots more stories.

 

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