Family Stories

Family Stories

Characteristics and types define families from the outside looking in. But from the inside, one of the most powerful ways we define our collective family identity is to share stories (Tovares, 2010). For example, when I was growing up, family storytelling was a nightly ritual. Some tales were from my parents’ college days, like the time my dad and his buddies filled a friend’s dorm room from floor to ceiling with wadded-up newspaper while the friend was away for the weekend. Others were created from shared family experiences, like when I fed my scrambled eggs to my dog Lottie because I didn’t want to eat them. Then Lottie regurgitated them in front of my mom, incriminating me. Now, years later, when we get together for visits, we relive and retell these stories and others like them, enjoying the sense of family history they provide.

No matter who is in them, families are some of the most central and formative interpersonal relationships that we have.

Family stories are narrative accounts shared repeatedly within a family that retell historical events and are meant to bond the family together (Stone, 2004). Such stories help create and promote a unique family identity by teaching individuals about their role in the family and about the family’s norms, values, and goals (Kellas, 2005). They also provide powerful images of family relationships. When people tell family stories, they typically lace their narratives with opinions and emotions that make clear how they feel about other family members (Vangelisti, Crumley, & Baker, 1999). Importantly, it’s not just the content of the stories that bonds families together; it’s the activity of storytelling. Family members often collaborate in telling stories: adding details, disagreeing, correcting discrepancies, and confirming perspectives (Kellas, 2005).

What are the most memorable family stories that were shared with you during your upbringing? What lessons did they teach you about your family and the values that you share? Did the stories function to bring you together as a family, or drive you apart?

However, family stories aren’t always positive; some criticize family values, condemn specific family members’ actions, or discourage dissent. These stories may also involve family histories of abandonment, abuse, or parental oppression—and corresponding lessons about how not to parent (Goodsell, Bates, & Behnke, 2010). While families share many types of stories, three stand out as especially potent in affirming family identity: courtship stories, birth stories, and survival stories (Stone, 2004).

Courtship Stories One of my family’s most poignant stories tells how my dad serenaded my mom from the courtyard of her dorm at Pomona College, while she stood on her balcony listening. Forty-five years later, my parents and I visited Pomona. While driving around campus, Mom suddenly shouted “Stop!” and leapt from the car. Dad and I followed her into a well-worn building, only to find her standing in the very courtyard that I had heard described so many times. Mom stood there, gazing at the balcony where she’d listened to Dad’s song more than four decades earlier. “There it is,” she whispered, “the spot where your father serenaded me,” and her eyes filled with tears.

Some families share courtship stories about how the parents fell in love. Courtship stories emphasize the solidity of the parents’ relationship, which children find reassuring. But perhaps most important, such stories give children a framework for understanding romantic love, by suggesting what one should feel about love, and how to recognize it when it occurs (Stone, 2004).

Sharing old photographs can bring family stories to life by providing lasting, powerful images of family relationships. Do you associate any particular images or other mementos with your favorite family stories?

Birth Stories Families also may share birth stories, which describe the latter stages of pregnancy, childbirth, and early infancy of a child. Birth stories help children understand how they fit into the family (“You’ll always be the baby”), which roles they’re expected to play (“Firstborns are always so independent”), and what their parents hope and dream for them (“We knew from the moment you were born that you’d accomplish great things!”).

Unlike biological children, adopted children often have little knowledge of their birth or birth parents. Consequently, the stories that adoptive parents create about how and why the children entered their adoptive families—known as entrance stories—are important in providing the child with a sense of personal identity and self-esteem (Krusiewicz & Wood, 2001). Entrance stories also help heal the broken bond with birth parents, by giving the child an explanation of why the adoption occurred. For example, one of the most common and constructive entrance stories involves framing the birth mother’s decision as altruistic: “the loving, painful decision of an amazing, caring woman” (Krusiewicz & Wood, 2001, p. 793).

Survival Stories Survival stories relate the coping strategies family members have used to deal with major challenges. Survival in these stories may be physical—as in the accounts that combat soldiers and famine victims tell. Or, survival may refer to a family member’s ability to prevail by achieving a level of financial stability or other forms of success. Survival stories give children the sense that they come from a tough, persevering family, which prepares them to face their own difficulties. For example, the mother of water polo star Brenda Villa (featured in our chapter opener) emigrated from Mexico when she was only 18, following the death of her father.2Excerpted from interview with author, July 13, 2011. Published with permission. She came to the United States to earn money and help support her family back home. This story of struggle and hardship inspired Brenda to work hard and achieve her own goals.

Telling Family Stories The breadth and depth of your family experiences provide a rich resource to share with family members. But not all shared experiences are ones your family members would like to relive. To ensure that family stories strengthen, rather than erode, family relationships, select experiences that cast the family and individual members in a positive light and that emphasize unity rather than discord. When sharing stories with younger family members, keep in mind that they will learn values from your story (Tovares, 2010). Ask yourself whether the story sends the message you intend about your family’s values.

Stories that cast individual family members in a humorous light require special care. Although such stories may be perfectly appropriate to share, make sure that the “target” family member enjoys and agrees to the telling. For example, you might repeatedly revisit the time your brother brought home an exceptionally strange date or recount the day your father accidentally drove the car through the garage wall while miraculously avoiding injury. Avoid sharing stories that breach personal confidences (“John never told any of you what really happened, but here it is!”) or that make sport of family members in ways they don’t enjoy. When in doubt, simply (but privately) ask the family member whether he or she wants you to share the story. If the answer is “no,” keep silent.