“How much can there really be to learn about storytelling?” I thought when I started on this mini-series.
It turns out that there’s actually quite a lot to learn, and that family storytelling can be a particularly useful tool for parents. We’re all trying to figure out how to transmit our values to our children, and storytelling can be quite an effective way of doing this. Further, storytelling can be a really valuable way to support children in overcoming traumatic experiences. In this episode we dig into the research on the benefits of family storytelling and look at how to do it.
Other episodes mentioned in this show
Hello, and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo Podcast. Regular listeners will recall that we are working through a couple of different series of episodes at the moment; one on the importance of play, and the other on storytelling. On the storytelling front, we started by talking with Dr. Deena Weisberg of the University of Pennsylvania about what children learn from fictional stories, and then we learned about the positive impacts that storytelling can have on children’s academic outcomes – and by storytelling I mean stories that are learned and told rather than read. Today we’re going to talk about a concept that Dr. Laura Froyen, who has been on the show a couple of times introduced me to – and that is the idea of family stories. These are the stories told within families about some or all of the family members’ experiences, some of which may be told so often that they become known as family legacies. I was particularly interested in this idea because Laura had mentioned that family storytelling can have really beneficial outcomes on family cohesion so I wanted to learn more about it. We’ll follow up this episode with the last in our series on storytelling in a couple of weeks where I plan to learn how to learn a story, and then tell it to my daughter while you listen in.
So different researchers have different ideas about the primary functions of family stories. Walter Fisher, a professor emeritus at the University of Southern California, theorized that narration can be divided into two types – “recounting” or “accounting for.” Recounting narratives include history, biography, and autobiography – things like how the parents met, or the birth of a child. Accounting for narratives attempt to explain or account for a family member’s personality traits or behavior. A story can also function in both ways: for example, when a mother tells a child the story of his birth: “You were born early in the morning— at about 6 a.m.! You must have liked that because ever since then, you’ve been my early bird, always getting up with the sun.”
One doctoral student described the main functions in her thesis as being firstly to know who we are and what we value, secondly to maintain us as a family, thirdly to laugh, and fourthly to remember the past. Elizabeth Stone, in a fabulous book on family storytelling called Black Sheep and Kissing Cousins, says the functions of family stories are firstly to persuade family members they are special, secondly to teach about the ways of the world and the family’s methods of coping with troubles and successes, and thirdly helping a person to know his or her own identity. Undoubtedly, family stories are strategies of family cultural maintenance and socialization tools – they help parents to share family values and lessons in growing up. Some of the themes related to socialization that researchers have observed include health behaviors like smoking marijuana and eating habits, values, gender expectations, and family and romantic relationship expectations.
And it’s not just that family stories are told by the parents for the benefit of the child, but that expressiveness among family members is positively associated with family strength. Six qualities are used to define family strength: a commitment to the family and well-being of each family member, positive communication and an ability to resolve conflict constructively, regular expressions of affection among family members, a tendency to enjoy quality time together, a sense of spiritual wellbeing (however you define that, I suppose) and an ability to effectively manage stress and unexpected crises. This specific study didn’t explore this factor, but it seems possible to me that family expressiveness through stories and other means is a key input for family strength, which increases expressiveness, in a self-fulfilling loop. The study DID find that family expressiveness and structural traditionalism, which is an approach to parenting where the parent’s word is seen as final and children don’t get much of a chance to express their ideas, accounted for 43% of the variance in family strength among the 426 young adults they studied, which is a pretty impressive amount for just two variables. There are so many factors impacting a family that I’m surprised to see an effect size of more than 10% for any single variable.
Most researchers focus on the significance of the stories to the child and the family unit, but a few look at their importance to parents as well. Becoming a parent may help an adult to make sense of experiences they had as a child, and family stories may help to integrate the adult’s own experiences as a young child as the parent continues to construct his or her own life story. Over time, the role of family stories shifts as the parent starts to tell more stories for the child’s benefit about achievement and striving for success, in an attempt to inculcate these values into the child. Mothers tend to tell stories with stronger themes of affiliation than fathers, and affiliation themes are also more common with younger children than with preschoolers.
People in different cultures tell family stories in different ways. American families tend to ask the children about their day over the dinner table, so the child becomes a primary narrator. Israelis are more likely to have equal narrative participation between children and adults, and children participate as co-narrators in storytelling. Americans’ family stories are often about individual experiences that are then shared with the family whereas Israeli families tend to tell stories that the family collectively experienced. Dr. Carma Bylund of the University of Iowa conducted one admittedly very small study of the family members in three different American families found that the American family’s stories were primarily celebratory in nature, without an evident theme of hardship and trial that were present in both a recently immigrated and fully assimilated Mexican American family. Dr. Bylund unfortunately did not record the children’s responses to these stories, though, and I was left wondering how the children perceived these stories of hardship.
My husband was born in New Jersey to Filipino parents, so I asked him what stories he recalled his parents telling. He immediately recalled the theme of hardship, and the idea that he should be grateful that his parents had emigrated for his benefit. I asked him how those stories made him feel, and he said that he pretty much brushed them off and didn’t pay too much attention – a “whatever, Mom” kind of thing. . This made me wonder whether the blunt instruments that parents may instinctively use are the best ones for the job, since in my sample size of one husband and my broader intuition these stories may not, by themselves, be suited to making children really appreciate the advantages they have which seems to be the parents’ goal. As we discussed in the last episode on the benefits of storytelling, it’s possible that a less direct approach where the children get to discuss a story with an ambiguous moral in a way that doesn’t have a predetermined conclusion, rather than being beaten over the head with the idea the parents want them to remember, might be a more effective way of getting an idea across.
At this point I want to take a bit of a detour to mention a new commitment that I make to you, my listeners. I have always aimed to be inclusive of all types of parents and parenting styles on the show, primarily by calling out the limitations of the scientific research I study which is primarily conducted on white people, and specifically white college students, and then the results are extrapolated as if they are applicable to all of mankind. I’ve been thinking a lot about the episode I did on why we shouldn’t ban war play, and while I think my guest made a convincing case for the developmental reasons why banning war play is a bad idea, I think that I did not do a good job of addressing the topic of whether children of non-dominant cultures should engage in war play. This is because it might not be safe for them to engage in this type of play when it could be misconstrued as more dangerous than it would be if an onlooker were watching children who are from the dominant culture in this country. So I pledge to you that in this and future episodes I will make my best attempt to consider not just how the sampling could impact the applicability of the results, but what are the implications of the results themselves for children and families of non-dominant cultures. I should also remind you that I use the language “dominant” and “non-dominant” cultures to indicate the power relationships between different cultures, and also to acknowledge that the word “minorities” can be a misnomer when discussing children since more than 50% of school-aged children are now not white, so technically it’s white children who are in the “minority.”
So with that commitment in mind, when I started reading a paper that attempts to tease out family members’ perceptions of storytelling (by surveying students at a private university, with a sample that was 79% Caucasian), I was struck by the language that was used in the survey questions because researchers don’t always tell you the precise wording of their questions in the final paper. Participants were asked to indicate agreement with items like “When my family tells stories, we are courteous and respectful to each other,” and “When my family engages in storytelling, I would describe the atmosphere as polite” and “When my family tells a story, we usually agree on the details of the story” and, finally, “when my family engages in storytelling, the story usually has a definitive beginning, middle, and end.” I couldn’t help but be reminded of Shirley Bryce Heath’s important book called Ways With Words, which she wrote after she spent a lot of time in the early 1980s in a pair of poor communities in Appalachia, one with Black residents that she called Trackton and the other with White residents that she called Roadville. I’ll quote a pretty long paragraph from one of her subsequent papers in which she summarizes parts of her research:
“In contrast to the assertions of the bulk of studies of parents interacting with young children acquiring language, they did not simplify their talk to children or even feel the need to address them directly. They did not have special routines of question-and-answer displays or baby-talk games, and they did not offer the labels for items in the environment to their children. Instead, they expected that children would learn to talk “when they need to,” and to judge when and to whom to give information and to be “wise” and cautious about answering “foolish” questions. Their philosophy of “what’s done is done” seemed to keep them from asking children to recount verbally what they had done or were currently doing, unless adults believed children had information adults needed. The display of knowledge through talking about what was done could invite ridicule or punishment, unless offered as a poetic, clever, entertaining, and quasi-fictional narrative that could be jointly constructed by initiator and audience. As soon as they could toddle, boys became public objects of verbal teasing, and successful verbal retorts could command attention from spectators of several porches. They learned a string of alternative ways of expressing similar meanings as well as alternative ways of performing the same utterance – always a well-formed short sentence with a variety of semantic values and context for interpretation. Adults and older children played different roles at different times with toddlers, who were expected to adapt, co-perform, and learn that roles did not rest in a single individual, but in widely distributed types of performances across the community.”
You might recall the story that was told by a 7-year-old girl that I recounted in the first episode in this series on storytelling, and it’s not hard to draw a line from the focus of the Trackton children’s language development, where parents are not courteous, respectful or polite toward children and instead ridicule their children, which helps the children to develop snappy responses with multiple layers of meaning through L’s story about her dog that is virtually incomprehensible to white listeners, to the much lower performance of Black children than White children on standardized reading tests. It’s not that the Black children in Trackton had an inferior linguistic skillset to those of White children, but rather that their skillset is *different* and does not necessarily align well with the skillset that is valued in schools where students must be polite, take turns, and tell stories with a definitive beginning, middle, and end. The researchers who look at family storytelling implicitly assume that the way White families tell stories is the right way and also that the model of a strong White family is the only model of a strong family. The researchers on this particular paper concluded, in part, that members of conversation-oriented families consider each other’s perspectives when they tell stories as a family, which is implied to be a good thing, while a conformity orientation discourages family members from thinking about issues from multiple perspectives because they are taught that only the parents’ perspective counts. There seems to be no space at all on this spectrum of potential options for ridiculing and punishment for children who tell about past events unless they are heavily fictionalized, and generating a clever, insightful, quasi-fictional narrative that might not include perspective-taking but is instead more of a performance for community members beyond the nuclear family. The article authors do acknowledge the homogeneity of their sample, but don’t make any mention of the bias present in their survey questions that may make the results completely inapplicable to anyone not raising their child as a member of the dominant culture. I’m sorry to say that this is just one particularly obvious example of bias in the literature on this topic, and that members of non-dominant cultures should carefully consider whether the apparently desirable outcomes described in the literature that I’ll discuss are appropriate goals for their families, although I acknowledge that of course there is wide variety in the child-rearing goals of these families. It’s possible that some families of non-dominant cultures may be interested in helping their child to be successful among members of the dominant culture (for example, in school) in which case this information could still be useful, although I hope that in time the dominant culture might come to understand and value the communication patterns used by members of non-dominant cultures.
Heading back toward our main track, I also want to mention the idea of being cautious about assigning stereotypes to family members through stories. There’s a story about me when I forgot to put the chocolate chips in the chocolate chip cookies and had to pull them out of the oven mix the chips in, and put them back in the oven which did not yield entirely satisfactory chocolate chip cookies; there’s another one about how I forgot the baking soda in banana bread which rendered it inedible. Thankfully there are also lots of stories about delicious meals that I’ve cooked, or I might start to feel like I couldn’t do anything right in the cooking department. Similarly, if we tag children with the ‘complainer’ or the ‘always messes things up’ label, they can start to live up to that label – and that’s not a trend we want to begin. So it’s OK to use stories to recall funny things when someone messed up, but just make sure that the same person isn’t always the butt of the joke on the same subject. Also be cautious of assigning only traditional gender roles, unless that’s something you’ve decided to do both to yourself and to your child – one study found that mothers are more likely to tell stories focusing on closeness, while fathers’ stories are more often about independence and work. In our family, we often laugh about how it’s Carys and I who do all the cooking, but whenever we go to our friends’ house around the corner it’s the husband who is preparing dinner while the wife and I chit-chat. I want to be sure she knows that while I enjoy cooking, not all women cook and a lot of men cook too.
Another thing family stories can do is to help children to resolve strong feelings about something traumatic that happened in the family. Some of the themes on this topic that researchers have observed include bereavement, break-ups, miscarriage, cancer, and relational stressors. They might want to relive the event over and over through story, perhaps in the same words every time or perhaps exploring different aspects of the story. When we tell a story about a difficult experience we have to consider multiple perspectives, which provides an opportunity for personal insight. Amazingly, resarch has shown that adults who wrote about a trauma they experienced had fewer physical problems and less psychological distress over time than people who didn’t write or who only thought about their experiences. The same goes for people who had difficult breakups – the ability to write a coherent narrative about a breakup was positively associated with better emotional adjustment. It seems to be the process of creating a coherent description of what happened, labeling their feelings and developing explanations for what happened helps them to develop insight, which helps them to develop a sense of control over the experience.
And two researchers from the University of Texas at Austin remind us that a story doesn’t need to be considered a “good” story by an outside observer to result in psychological benefit – rather, a “good” story is one that helps individuals to make meaning outside of their otherwise confusing experiences. So family members might recount together events using plot, character and setting devices in a way that helps them make sense of and give meaning to the events and to their family relationship.
Storytelling can shift stressors from being things that just one family member feels to a relational-level activity, and as the story about the event is told together, the family experiences the joint accomplishment of telling the story. It allows us to reappraise the situation, establish a greater sense of control over our experiences, and bring about catharsis through emotional expression. And it’s important to note that your contributions might make you feel like you’re not doing very much, but agreeing, listening carefully, providing space for the other person to talk, using a positive tone when you do make relevant contributions that build on the story rather than interrupting, are actually enormously important ways to help construct the story. The teller is primarily responsible for telling the story, but the collaborator helps the teller to shape, clarify, and organize their narrative, and the meaningful contributions the collaborator makes can change the way the storyteller thinks about the story or understands the experience. This process goes beyond just recounting the events to draw conclusions about the experience and its impact, significance, or effect on the family or on particular family members.
This theory of how people learn is very much in line with other theories we looked at in the episode from a while back on preschools that are inspired by the philosophy of learning used in Reggio Emilia, Italy, which itself is based on the work of a Russian psychologist called Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky believed that there is no such thing as a piece of knowledge that sits off by itself and that we can grab hold of and learn, and that instead learning is a thing that is constructed between two people. This perspective-taking that happens through social learning, along with the coherence we talked about a minute ago, emerge over and over again in the research as predictors of both individual and relational health. So the way we work with our child to tell a story together about an important event helps to develop a pattern for how that child copes with events in the future, and also influences how both we as parents and they as children react, think, and feel within and about our relationships and our lives. Stressful experiences can have a divisive effect on families, and there’s actually a field of therapy called narrative therapy that focuses on externalizing the problem to avoid putting blame on one or more family members and instead encourage the family members to work collectively against the problem.
Researchers have also studied how families tell stories about how the family unit was formed, such as the parents’ courtship and the child’s birth or adoption. So-called “adoption entrance narratives” could actually predict differences in children’s self-concept, with parents who emphasized the “chosen child” theme in their entrance narratives had children with higher rates of self-esteem and generalized trust. These stories also unite the family members with a common history and set of expectations about the world and how the family acts in and responds to things that happen in that world.
Professor Judy Koenig Kellas of the University of Nebraska has been particularly active in the field of family storytelling, and she notes that when stories are combined over time and generations they become family legacies which made me think, because I actually cannot think of a single story told in my family that would qualify as a legacy. I had three sets of grandparents, although they’re all dead now, and while I know the basics of where most of them came from, I can’t say that any of them ever told me a story about their lives and what was important to them. I do remember my grandfather being very, very annoyed at me for making fun of Spam, the canned meat “product,” because he had lived through the second world war and I guess it was a vital part of his diet at the time. And I remember that I had a great aunt, I think, who had actually cut her own arm off with an ax, allegedly because she was angry about something, but probably the only reason I remember that is because both my sister and I were absolutely terrified of the hook she wore where her hand should have been. Now I think about this for what is pretty much the first time, I wonder what I have lost by not having sought out these stories. My maternal grandmother was German so there MUST have been a story behind her emigration to England, although I’ve no idea what it was. This makes me think that I should reach out to my Dad and to my mom’s sister to help me understand some more of our family history and stories before I lose another generation. Professor Kellas says that these legacy-type of stories tend to communicate fairly simple messages like “Turners are stubborn” or “sons are important,” and may both enable and/or constrain family identity and individual family members’ sense of themselves. We should recognize that people have some level of agency over their identity, which is to say that they have some level of control over it, but identities are also shaped and constrained by both family and culture. We talked about this in our episode on siblings when we discussed why siblings from Western cultures fight while siblings in many other cultures don’t. Dr. Susan McHale gave us an example of children in many Latin American countries having very prescribed roles – so the oldest girl is the caretaker, and the oldest boy can override the oldest girl even if she’s older than he is. Having these prescribed roles reduces the day-to-day arguing between siblings, but it does this by constraining the children’s identities. Western children, of course, have different constraints on their identities – the “thou shalt go to college” narrative is a very important one that can shape whether the child ends up viewing themselves as a success or failure. A child might choose to reject a legacy story – one participant who was interviewed in a study on this topic described that her family had a legacy of not confronting problems, a trait that she recognized in herself and saw as negative but was trying to overcome. This process can create some cognitive dissonance for the individual, which is a fancy way of saying that it’s easiest if all of our belief systems align. It’s easier if there’s a family legacy of not confronting problems to just not confront problems, and that if you want to reject that family legacy then you are partially rejecting your family’s belief system which can be a difficult thing to do.
The most enduring legacy narrative I have inherited is one of frugality, and I assume that came down through my grandparents to some extent, given that they lived through the war, although it’s not something that I recall being passed along through stories. We didn’t have a lot of money when I was growing up – we always had enough to eat, but we virtually always ate at home – I actually don’t remember eating at a restaurant when we were in our hometown, ever, until I was at least 11 or 12.
I don’t recall being explicitly told that I must be frugal or that “our family is thrifty,” but I do remember some experiences that really shaped my worldview. When I was probably eight or nine, I was in my bedroom one day and I was cold. Houses in England are often heated by radiators which circulate warm water through them and they take a while to heat up. Ours were all always set at number 2 out of 6, so I thought “I’ll just turn it up so I can be warmer,” and I turned it up to number 6. Well it takes a while for radiators to warm up and I forgot about it until later that night when my mum came into my room and we both suddenly noticed that it was *really warm* in my room and she saw the radiator was still set at 6. I don’t remember exactly what she said to me but she came with me and made me tell my Dad about it; I don’t think they punished me but I still clearly remember the shame I felt at having to tell my Dad that I’d turned the radiator up. When I got older, my stepmother’s standard response to the statement “I’m cold” was “put more clothes on then” – I think we rarely ran the heating in that house. Since then I’ve studied forestry and environmental management and have embraced a narrative of environmental responsibility, as much as I can, which fortunately fits well with the narrative of thriftiness.
I have definitely experienced some cognitive dissonance in marrying a very American American who sees it as his birthright to walk around the house in a t-shirt while running the heating at 80 degrees, whereas I turn the heating off when I’m working from home and instead wear three layers of clothing and sit under a blanket. Carys is really into the Let’s Read and Find Out Science books at the moment and she loves the one on reflexes, and one of the reflexes described in that book is shivering. A boy in the story gets out of the bath and shouts “MOM, I’m cold!” and Carys will now respond loudly: “Well put more clothes on then!” We also talk a lot about not wasting things like water, because we live in a place where there isn’t a lot of water to go around and we have to make sure there’s enough for everyone to use, and she actually won a prize from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission at a wildflower festival we went to a few weeks ago because she was able to state three ways in which we save water. So I’m very conscious that I’m passing this narrative on to her, but I’m trying to do it in a way that emphasizes a sense of responsibility and a need to share resources with others, rather than shaming her into doing things for reasons that she never fully understands. I’m hoping that she will embrace the narrative of responsibility for her actions and for the wellbeing of others (to the extend that she can reasonably impact it) without this feeling like a negative, constraining thing that she needs to try to reject or escape.
So as we wrap up, I have two main questions to guide you in thinking more about this topic. The first one is that whether or not you’re still in touch with your parents, whether or not anyone explicitly told you stories as a child, you probably internalized some kind of narrative or narratives about your identity and your place in a family unit from the people who raised you – so what are those narratives? And how do those narratives fit with the way you hope to raise your own child? And secondly, if your child or your family has experienced a stressful event recently, is it possible that you could use storytelling to help them, and even you, and even your family to process that event? And if you’ve been lucky enough not to have experienced a stressful event lately, then please do tuck this episode away in the back of your mind for use in the future, because stresses do get us all eventually and it could be a tool that’s useful to you in the future. Thanks again for listening – you can find all the references for today’s show at www.yourparentingmojo.com/familystorytelling.
Bylund, C.L. (2003). Ethnic diversity and family stories. Journal of Family Communication 3(4), 215-236.
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Thompson, P.A., & Schrodt, P. (2015). Perceptions of joint family storytelling as mediators of family communication patterns and family strengths. Communication Quarterly 63(4), 405-426.