I have been posting how much reading books will help our children. We know it helps their language skills, their mental models of how the world works and that reading at an early age will help them do better at school. Starting the love of books at a young age can help them love books for their whole lives. We know this. We know how important reading to our children is.
What some of us don’t know is the power of everyday family stories can have the same benefits as reading or listening to a book–and even some added benefits we didn’t even realize.
An article in The Atlantic said, “Over the last 25 years, a small canon of research on family storytelling shows that when parents share more family stories with their children—especially when they tell those stories in a detailed and responsive way—their children benefit in a host of ways. For instance, experimental studies show that when parents learn to reminisce about everyday events with their preschool children in more detailed ways, their children tell richer, more complete narratives to other adults one to two years later compared to children whose parents didn’t learn the new reminiscing techniques.’
“Children of the parents who learned new ways to reminisce also demonstrate better understanding of other people’s thoughts and emotions. These advanced narrative and emotional skills serve children well in the school years when reading complex material and learning to get along with others. ‘
“In the preteen years, children whose families collaboratively discuss everyday events and family history more often have higher self-esteem and stronger self-concepts. And adolescents with a stronger knowledge of family history have more robust identities, better coping skills, and lower rates of depression and anxiety. Family storytelling can help a child grow into a teen who feels connected to the important people in her life.”
Family stories give our children a clue where they belong–here, with us, to keep trying to work through challenges and learn how good life is. Telling family stories is like putting down bread crumbs for our children, to nourish and lead them, like Hansel and Gretal did, so they could find their way back home.
My mother was a master storyteller. My mother’s story-telling could be likened to a farmer who is irrigating a field and directing the water with his hoe which way to go by his skill. My mother’s stories flowed over us to show us how to live and be. She was dramatic, funny and outrageous, more like her cowboy father than her lady-like mother.
One of the things she was working on us was to develop our humor. One of our family’s favorite stories is about my brother David, who ran in from playing, and my mom said to him, “Did you hear about the robbery?” First grade David, wide-eyed, said, “Robbery! What robbery!” My mom answered dramatically, “Two clothespins held up a pair of pants!” David, then caught up in the drama said, “Were they my pants?”
My mom would retell that story often and we would hoot.
In my grandmother’s history, my mother captured the principle of enlightenment and prosperity we can gain with God’s help. My mother would tell me how her mother, my Grandma Adams, was delighted to be in partnership with God. She spoke often to her daughters about this partnership and all the blessings that flowed to her because of it. My mother wrote:
“Also because of my mother’s strength of going to church, and being good in the church, always paying her tithing and doing things she should do, made it so I have a testimony and I am grateful for that. When our mama found something wonderful for her apartments she would say, ‘Thank goodness I just paid my tithing!”
My mother continues:
“I felt all of the windows of heaven do open when tithing is paid so it has been easy for me to pay my tithing because so many wonderful things would follow and they always have, and it’s because mother made it sound so fun and necessary and wonderful.”
“Mother helped so many people also. She helped missionaries no one ever knew she helped. She helped more people than anyone ever knew and she was always so helpful to us girls. Everything we needed to have for anything she’d help us get or do or fix.”
My mother would tell these stories about my grandmother to me, and they went straight to my heart. The more I heard, the more I wanted to see the same wonderful things happening in my life, and to know that “the windows of heaven” were opening abundantly for me, as well. I wanted a deep testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ that would carry me through hardship like my grandmother had–I know her strong, enduring faith helped her family thrive during the Great Depression that lasted ten long years. Grandma Adams had a goal, and she counted on God to help her find the money to get her daughters educated.
I wanted to be abundant like my grandmother was, and help people like she did. I love that she was generous with her family and with strangers, quietly, without many people knowing. My grandmother, who I hardly knew or spent much time with, has influenced me so strongly because of my mother’s stories of how joyfully she loved living the gospel– “It’s because mother made it sound so fun and necessary and wonderful.”
Since 2013 when my mother had a stroke, and she lost so much speech and memory, I only have heard one more story from her.
My daughter Abby was coming from BYU and I asked her to pick up my mother from my sister’s house where she lived. The day was windy and as my mother arrived, they came in together with their hair blown and out of breath from the effort of walking. My mother breathlessly announced, “We came through a lot of pillow cases to get here!”
My brother-in-law Chad is an excellent storyteller like my mother was. He loves to tell a good, dramatic story. He has mastered the art of the pause, telling whatever problem there was and then the resolution with his children. Recently I watched him tell a story I have heard him tell before but what really caught my attention was watching his children lean in and be with their Dad in the telling of the tale. Their body language showed them moving towards their Dad slightly, engaged with their shoulders leaning in. Their eyes were tracking him and they all started having little smiles on their mouths as he was getting to the funny resolution. I was more entertained watching their engagement with this familiar story than the story itself. These family stories bind our children to us.
The best thing about family stories is they travel with us and don’t cost anything to tell. The lights don’t need to be on to tell about an experience we had in our day, or our childhood, or Grandpa’s childhood. Our family stories can be part of our daily interactions with our children into their teenage years, long past the time when they don’t want us to read to them at night anymore.
Every family has many stories to tell, good and bad. They are both such valuable resources to use. With difficult stories if they are told with a sensitivity to the child’s age and also if something positive is taken from the negative story then it’s a valuable lesson.
One of my negative turned positive stories that we tell in my family is, about our beloved cabin in Provo Canyon, built in the 1940’s. My parents bought it when I was five, and every summer of my life we came and spent magical times with cousins, outside, and running free. We went from the Three Bears Trail up the mountain, to building damns in the creek behind our cabin, to a swing that went over across the creek that went high, high, high. This family heirloom caught fire in the 1980’s because of old and faulty wiring. A wonderful neighbor turned his hose on it and minimized the damage but the cabin sat forlorn and unused for many years because of my parent’s divorce. In the last ten years it has come to life and been completely transformed.
We finally came together as siblings and came up with a plan. It has been remodeled and enlarged to house wonderful family reunions. We tell this story a lot to the grandchildren of my parents. How we came together as siblings to manage my mother’s estate and redo the exterior of the cabin initially, and then, with skill and creativity my brother Steve, rebuilt the cabin and tripled its size. We moan over the difficulty of getting the permits, and the difficult french drain in the basement. We clap over the swinging beds and “the wormhole” children can crawl through that Steve designed and put in. It goes from the first floor kitchen closet to the third floor playroom, a little tunnel through the center of the cabin. I still give a little start when a child appears suddenly out of that kitchen closet when I am in the cabin kitchen preparing food. I am not quite used to that yet!
This family story has taught all of us that families aren’t perfect, that hard things happen–like a divorce and a fire– to good families where parents are striving to be good parents. This story also shows us how creating good times and memories takes unity and work. One sibling could not have maneuvered out of the mess that the cabin had become. We have learned in our family that we need each other more than ever. This story has been a great story of resilience for us.
Books have narratives but only family stories have our family’s particular narrative. Lucky children get to have both. They can read many books and learn about history, other’s struggle and fantastical worlds. When you add family stories, then our children learn empathy, have a stronger knowledge of their family history that helps them with anxiety, have better coping skills and stronger identities. Our children also will learn that people they know struggle and can overcome diversity. They will know where they came from and who they really belong to.