Family Stories Lead to Health & Happiness

April 15, 2013

  old fashioned family picnic

By Amy Hackworth. Image here.

“Tell us another one!” It’s a gleeful plea at the kitchen table after Sunday dinner, and our boys are dying to hear another story from their dad’s childhood. Fortunately, Justin is blessed with a great memory and enough mischievous deeds to tell story after story, keeping our kids captive, and laughing, and begging for more.

We all enjoy the stories, but I’ll relish them a little more after reading Bruce Fieler’s recent New York Times article about the importance of family narratives. Feiler cites research by Marshall Duke and Robin Fivush of Emory University that indicates understanding where our families come from — and how they’ve celebrated the good times and weathered the bad times — is the “best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.” The best single predictor!

I’m amazed that such a simple act of storytelling can have such a deep impact on children’s well-being, but the more children knew about their family, Feiler reports, “the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.” Professor Duke also cites “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.”

Interestingly, it’s not just knowing the answer to questions like, “How did your parents meet?” or “What happened when you were born?” that matters. It’s why and how children know the answers, or as Professor Duke says, “the process by which these things came to be known.” Since the questions (see all 20 questions on the “Do you Know…?” scale here) refer to events before a child was born or beyond her experience, knowing the answers relies on repeated family conversations, dinners, and gatherings, and hearing those same stories over and over and over again (sorry, kids!) until they become shared knowledge.

That shared knowledge creates an “intergenerational self,” a belief that somehow creates resilience as we come to understand we are part of something that started long before. And we understand what that something is — our beginning, our heritage, our family — when we share the stories that created it.

Do you feel connected to the stories of your family’s past? Can you answer the 20 “Do You Know?” questions? And how are you sharing your family’s history with your kids?

P.S. — Feel free to tease me for liking the Judd’s, but I have always loved this song about ancestors, and now I have research-based evidence to back it up! : ) Find additional questions for gathering family history hereAnd remember another of our discussions about family stories and StoryCorps here. Thanks to my yoga friend Randy for sharing Fieler’s article with me!

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{ 3 trackbacks }

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April 19, 2013 at 5:33 am
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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Julia April 15, 2013 at 9:53 am

I’m going to use these questions for family home evening tonight. Thanks for the great ideas!

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2 Amy Hackworth April 15, 2013 at 4:56 pm

Julia, that will be so much fun! I’d love to hear how it goes!

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3 Rachel April 15, 2013 at 9:59 am

Oh Amy! This struck such a cord with me!

Our family is going through some big challenges right now and those family stories (good and bad) have not only been a source of comfort for me but for our children as well. Recently I have noticed them asking us more often to tell them those stories, even though they’ve already heard them again and again. Thanks so much for this post.

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4 Amy Hackworth April 15, 2013 at 4:56 pm

Rachel, how nice that the stories you know have been comforting to you already. Good luck with your challenges!

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5 Erin April 15, 2013 at 10:01 am

Thanks so much for sharing this article! As a lover of and believer in knowing/learning your family history and keeping records this really resonates with me. I feel lucky that I always did feel connected to my past, (thanks mom) and I definitely try to share everything I know with my kids.

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6 Lisa April 15, 2013 at 10:09 am

ditto Julia! Thanks Amy, this is so interesting. My husband has some great stories too and I was just thinking last night after hearing some of them again that he really needs to write them down — and some we’ll share with our kids once they are no longer teenagers :)

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7 Amy Hackworth April 15, 2013 at 4:55 pm

Ha! Nothing wrong with saving family stories for a later date… :)

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8 Tamara April 15, 2013 at 11:19 am

This is great and so interesting. My husband and I have started making it a tradition to tell a story about ourselves to our kids every night before they go to bed. They love it even to the point that they won’t let us get away with a night of not telling them something.

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9 Rachel April 15, 2013 at 11:40 am

I just found this notebook on Etsy:

http://www.etsy.com/listing/89202872/personalized-notebook-journal-daring?ref=shop_home_active

I’m giving it to my Dad for Father’s Day. He has the most amazing stories from his childhood – him and all of his brothers. He has always wanted to record them. I’m giving him the notebook to write down some of his memories and then when I go to visit or talk to him over the phone I want to just spend hours of him telling stories and me writing them down. I definitely want to save and remember them all.

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10 Amy Hackworth April 15, 2013 at 4:51 pm

What a fun notebook, Rachel, and what a beautiful desire you have to get them all down. Good luck!

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11 Angela April 15, 2013 at 11:47 am

Thanks for pointing out this article. True story: our eldest child was adopted at birth (the others are biological). In second grade, the class had to research an ancestor and report to the class. Our kid very proudly reported on his g-g-grandfather, who shared his name and was an army hero to boot. Later the teacher said (privately to me) what a fantastic job he had done – and did we talk much about adoption, that this guy wasn’t his “blood” relative etc. The teacher meant well & was genuinely interested – I was not offended. :> And I was happy to tell her that g-g-grandfather had been abandoned at birth and raised in an orphanage in Italy. :> There is SO MUCH value in sharing our stories – and I know they aren’t all pretty, and they don’t always fire-on-all-cylinders the way this one does (and always will) for my kid. For better or for worse, our families make us who we are.

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12 Amy Hackworth April 15, 2013 at 4:52 pm

Wow, an amazing story for your little guy to have. Incredible.

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13 Tiffany Lewis April 15, 2013 at 1:16 pm
14 Amy Hackworth April 15, 2013 at 4:53 pm

Tiffany, Loni shared your article with me. Small world. I love what you wrote, and love that you have all those fun stories about your awesome parents and grandparents!

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15 Gabriele April 15, 2013 at 2:24 pm

What a wonderful post and thank you for connecting us to these two articles. I certainly feel the need for family knowledge to be passed on and I see it most needful for the generation younger than mine. My children and nieces and nephews are hungry for these life affirming stories. I put on my blog as stand alone pages and I know they come back to read them over and over again. We need family literacy.

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16 Amy Hackworth April 15, 2013 at 4:54 pm

“We need family literacy.” I love it, Gabriele. So cool that you’re recording those stories for your children, nieces and nephews.

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17 Loni April 15, 2013 at 6:05 pm

Amy, fantastic article….so meaningful and important. My father led a remarkable life, but I knew so little about it because he was a private person. But, when I ASKED, he would talk. I treasure the small bits and pieces I do know. I found it amazing that stories of the past help a child have confidence and have an impact on behavior. What an easy and simple thing to do to share stories with our children!!!!! This is such a very significant post. Every parent in America should be made aware of how important sharing stories is with our children. This is MAJOR stuff! Thank you.

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18 Maria B April 15, 2013 at 8:57 pm

My Grandpa tells the most amazing stories from the Korean War. Just incredible tales of good guys, bad guys, terrible weather, misery, joy, laughter. It’s such a privilege to hear him tell them and it’s stunning the details he remembers. I’ve been thinking for the past few months that the next time I see him I’d like to record them. He’s nearly 80 now and I’m terrified that when I lose him I’ll lose his amazing stories too. That the details will fade and then slowly they will be lost. I cannot let that happen. I’ll probably have to be sneaky though, because if he knew I was recording he probably wouldn’t talk! I’ve long had in mind a photo project combining his stories and my images. I’m going to have to get on that right away. Thanks for the kick in the pants.

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19 Raleigh-Elizabeth April 16, 2013 at 8:27 am

Oh Amy, I just loved this! Family stories are the best. They were our favorite bedtime stories growing up (if you listen to how grand the stories got by my littlest brother, my dad single-handedly laid the railroad from Pennsylvania to California – all while he was in law school) and are the things I’m most excited to pass on to our own brood. WONDERFUL post.

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20 KelliO April 16, 2013 at 3:04 pm

I first met my grandfather when I was 18, but had a short tape growing up of him telling the story of his father immigrating from Czechoslovakia to Chicago. I wish I’d had years to get more stories out of him and to explain the family photos he left.
I love the stories and heirlooms! When my grandma died, I received some of her dresses. She made a plaid, princess-seamed, dropwaist pleated-skirt dress in highschool or college, I think. I amazed she stuck with it to match the print and all!

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21 janssen April 16, 2013 at 8:10 pm

I read his book a few weeks ago and loved all of it. But this recommendation, especially, resonated with me.

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22 Polly Scott April 16, 2013 at 10:05 pm

Amy! So nice to meet you. I love your writing:). Can’t wait to hear/read more!

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