Sunday nights are special around here. My wife and I head over the causeway to visit her 93-year-old parents who live on the river. The best part of Sunday dinner is afterward – wine is left on the table, coffee is added, and the family stories come out. Growing up motherless in Absecon, New Jersey. The joy of picking blueberries down by the seashore. Being deployed in WWII and losing your brother in the war. The hardship of living through the Depression and its aftermath when there was no safety net and luxury meant having a real meal to eat. The stories are vivid and the details are rich.
My father-in-law met my mother-in-law while delivering ice with his dad who started the “business” because there were no jobs. After buying a 100-pound block of ice, he would chip off smaller chunks to sell to neighbors – not an easy job. While courting, they danced to the big bands who played down by the river, and when they tell the stories, you can almost feel the summer breezes and hear the bands play. Telling these stories is a wonderful way to spend time with those you love, but it turns out that family time and family stories are more important than that.
One of the most constructive things we can do for our family is passing down family stories – building a family narrative. Research has shown that children who knew about their family and its history had “higher self-esteem” and a “stronger their sense of control over their lives.” Having a greater knowledge of family history was the “best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness” (1).
Children who hear stories – especially detailed stories about everyday life, grow up to tell “richer, more complete narratives” themselves and “demonstrate better understanding of other people’s thoughts and emotions” while also feeling more “connected to the important people” in their life. They exhibit “better coping skills,” have “more robust identities” and “lower rates of depression and anxiety” (2).
Family stories teach our children that not all times are good times and overcoming adversity is an important trait. These stories bring life’s troubles to the dining room table and show how those who came before got through tough times. But these stories also share the happiness that comes from these shared family experiences, and the heartwarming tales can bring the family together and show the joy that is your family’s life.
Today we move so fast that stopping for a leisurely dining experience that really begins when the dishes are cleared is hard to do. But taking the time to share family stories and build the family narrative may be one of the most important things we can do as parents and as family members.
1. The Stories That Bind Us, Bruce Feller, New York Times, March 15, 2013
2. What Kids Learn From Hearing Family Stories, Elaine Reese, The Atlantic, December 9, 2013