Sharing Family Life Stories with Kids: Important Tips for ParentsShare
When families get together, stories abound. What are the benefits of sharing family life stories with children? Are there any concerns? Here’s information, along with several suggestions for parents.
People’s lives bubble along. Experiences vary tremendously—and some lids aren’t lifted until long after something has occurred. Stories about what’s happened in people’s lives can be conveyed in many different ways, and the telling itself is a creative process. However, astute parents consider how family revelations might affect their children.
I consulted with a professional—personal storyographer Toba Sheryl Lavine. She carefully elicits and records narratives about people’s lives so that their stories can be shared with others. I asked her four questions:
1) What is the reason for conveying family life stories?
2) What are the benefits for children?
3) What concerns might parents have about sharing these stories?
4) What are some tips for parents?
Here’s my distillation of our discussion. The answers to the above questions might surprise you!
Family life stories – what and why?
People are often keen to find out more about their family. Many want to create a record of their parents’, grandparents’, or great-grandparents’ lives, whether it’s full life-span stories, or compelling recollections about specific experiences or events. Shared and recorded stories help keep memories alive so future generations will know something about their family members and their roots. And, those telling their stories can rest assured they won’t be forgotten; their values and information about their lives will be passed along to others.
Advantages of sharing family stories with children?
“If you want a happier family, create, refine and retell the story of your family’s positive moments and your ability to bounce back from the difficult ones.” *
Drawing connections with the past, and with the previously unknown, helps children acquire a historical perspective. Whether it’s over the dinner table, in the car, at a family celebration, or elsewhere, it’s all about the sharing. Personal storygraphy (the process of compiling and recording one or more individual’s stories), also provides a means to introduce children to friends and family members—from the here-and-now, and from days-gone-by. Sharing family stories is a way to strengthen inter-generational ties, keeping ideas and traditions alive, and enabling children to understand their cultural backgrounds. Stories may demonstrate how people have navigated experiences, solved problems, or dealt with challenges. “Family stories have surprising power to help children through hard times.” ** And, when kids pay attention, make connections, and formulate questions, they learn valuable skills. Children may also gain resilience, self-confidence, and a greater appreciation of others, and feel a part of something that extends far beyond themselves.
Hearing stories about families – parental concerns?
“The trick is telling the stories in a way children can hear.” ***
Before sharing stories with children, parents should carefully consider what kind of information is being disclosed. Sometimes individuals tell stories that are hard to express, or to hear. People feeling their own mortality—for example, those who want to share their thoughts and personal histories before it’s too late—may convey difficult stories. And, every once in a while, a person might feel the need to reveal secrets they no longer want to keep locked inside. Personal stories can be fascinating, surprising, scary, complicated, sad, unbelievable, provocative, or disappointing. And those are just a few of the possibilities!
Children’s and teens’ emotional and cognitive capacities vary with age and developmental level. Some parents may discover that their kids have difficulty processing stories or handling the disclosure of family secrets. Moreover, children may not understand contexts, references, or other aspects of someone else’s lived experiences. As a result, children may become confused, disinterested, or overwhelmed. They may have trouble grappling with feelings or find story details disconcerting.
What are some tips for parents?
When sharing authentic stories with children, here are four suggestions for parents:
1) Don't push. Ascertain that the child wants to hear or see the stories before sharing them. If a child is apprehensive, a chat about why he’s feeling that way may help to dispel some of the trepidation. Stories are best received and appreciated by children when they’re ready to listen, interested, and open to engaging with the material.
2) Keep it appropriate for the child’s age and level of understanding. Story material that is too complex or emotionally charged may be hard for children to handle. Be prepared to notch it down, fast forward, or stop altogether if need be. When a storyographer has put together a piece, check out the content (language, imagery) before presenting it to children.
3) Consider the timing. Set aside sufficient time so as to be able to pause along the way and carefully answer a child’s questions before, during, and after the sharing of a story. Choose a time when the child is not tired, hungry, busy, or upset.
4) Monitor the process. Be there. As children absorb a story keep your eyes and ears open as to how they’re responding. If it seems to be too much all at once, take breaks, or chunk the material over several days. If they show disinterest, give it a rest. In the meantime, perhaps think about how to make relevant connections between the storyline and the child’s every day world.
The sharing of a family’s life stories can be thought provoking and beneficial for children, helping them learn, formulate a sense of identity, and put their own experiences into perspective. Telling and preserving stories bridges past and present understandings, creating and maintaining ties across the years. However, the sharing should take place in a safe and nurturing context wherein emotional support is close at hand, and the exchange of questions and answers is readily part of the process in order to illuminate it. This way everyone is better prepared to fully appreciate the story being conveyed, and better able to understand the person who chose to share it.
For more information about nurturing children’s optimal development see Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids (by Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster, House of Anansi Press, 2014) and visit http://www.beyondintelligence.net
* From The New York Times piece “The Stories that Bind Us” by Bruce Feifer (Feifer also writes, “The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.”)
** and *** from The Wall Street Journal piece “Life Stories: Children Find Meaning in Old Family Tales” by Sue Shellenberger
Information about Storyography:
Storyography is the process of amassing and preserving stories, generally in audio, video, or book format, so they can be shared with others. To find out more about this, visit Toba Sheryl Lavine’s website at www.lifeisodes.com and check out the Association of Personal Historians at http://www.personalhistorians.org
Additional Resources on Sharing Family Memories:
For My Children THE PERFECT MOTHER'S DAY GIFT by: Sharon DeVellis
Moms Are Good, Grandmothers Are Better GRANDMOTHERS DO IMPORTANT THINGS, BUT HAVE A LOT OF FUN DOING IT by: Evelyn Hannon