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Category: Family Capital

The Power of Family Stories

July 27, 2021

As a youngster I often walked the quarter mile up our country road to visit my grandparents. As I look back sixty years at those visits, I have come to realize that it wasn’t just the stick of Juicy Fruit gum from Grandpa’s pocket or the slice of fresh homemade bread that kept me returning several times a week. It was the stories.

If Grandpa was not working in the fields, he would be sitting in his favorite chair reading. He shared what he was reading and usually the conversation continued, “That reminds me of a story. . .” Grandma was a self-taught genealogist. I knew I could hear stories from her as well.

Some stories were humorous, such as when my great uncle scared all his sisters by sticking a long hat pin through a wall to make a portrait of a long-deceased grandmother move and dance on the wall as if she were angry with her posterity. I laughed at the story of a bank robber who was able to avoid capture for some years because his horse was so fast the sheriff didn’t consider him a suspect since he had good alibis. I listened as my grandmother explained how she was able to use her nurse’s training to transform a wood-burning cookstove into a type of incubator when my uncle was born prematurely. My favorite stories related the hardships and triumphs of family members as they immigrated to new lands, established new homes in sparsely settled territory, survived the 1918 flu epidemic and the Great Depression, went through two World Wars, had prayers answered, and created families that eventually included me.

Over a decade ago, researchers Dr. Marshall Duke and Dr. Robyn Fivush examined how people could counteract the societal forces that are pulling families apart. They concluded that the more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their own lives, the higher their self-esteem, and the more successful they believed their families to be.

The researchers developed a measurement tool called the “Do You Know?” scale. It asked children questions such as: Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your parents met? Do you know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? The “Do You Know?” scale proved to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and resilience.

According to Dr. Duke, every family has a unifying narrative which takes one of three shapes. The ascending family narrative (rags-to-riches or achievement through hard work) is one type. The descending narrative (we used to have it all, but then. . .) is a second kind. The third kind is the most helpful and is called the oscillating family narrative. It utilizes the ups and downs and the how-we-made-it-through-together stories.

When I read this research, I recognized how much my family’s stories have helped me. When I have faced challenging situations, I remember family members before me who persevered through their own challenges. During cancer treatment, the thought that it is in my DNA to push through trials gave me determination. When daily life is hard, I ponder the difficulties of a pioneer grandmother raising a large family in a one-room log cabin on the Iowa prairie.

Some cultures already have a strong oral history tradition, but many do not. As we look for ways to help our families and our children and grandchildren, sharing positive moments and examples of our ability to bounce back can be a powerful tool. We can find natural opportunities during which we can share our stories and create new ones. Developing a sense of being part of a larger family gives us identity, coping skills, and resilience. It is one way that families contribute to the strength of societies – one story at a time.