As I kiss my girl and she snuggles down in bed, she says, ‘tell me a story, Mum.’
‘What story do you want, sweetheart?’
‘The Hong Kong story, please.’
‘When Mummy was a little girl she lived in Hong Kong …’
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve told this story. I watch her settle back and listen to the familiar words; so familiar that she contributes some of the story herself, even though she did not experience it.
Storytelling is an integral part of childhood. We read to our children. We also make up imaginative tales where they each contribute an element. But research has shown it is also important to tell family stories. To relate the experiences of parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts. Events that occurred before our children were alive.
In fact, a study by psychologist Marshall Duke published in 2010, found that children who were most resilient to stress were those that had a strong sense of family narrative. The study found the children “who know a lot about their families tend to do better when they face challenges.”
Family storytelling falls into three broad areas. The first is the ascending narrative, where the family starts with nothing and builds a life. The second is the descending narrative, ‘we used to have it all and we lost everything’. But researchers stress that the most important stories to share, fall in the third category, which covers both the ups and downs of family history.
The most healthful narrative,” Dr. Duke continued, “is the third one. It’s called the oscillating family narrative: ‘Dear, let me tell you, we’ve had ups and downs in our family. We built a family business. Your grandfather was a pillar of the community. Your mother was on the board of the hospital. But we also had setbacks. You had an uncle who was once arrested. We had a house burn down. Your father lost a job. But no matter what happened, we always stuck together as a family.’
These oscillating stories enable our children to build a picture of themselves that the researchers call a strong ‘intergenerational self’. The child understands his/her own identity as part of a bigger family story. The researchers’ result suggest that a child’s ‘knowledge of their family history is an important contributor to their developing sense of self and well-being.’
So tell your family stories, tell the good, tell the bad. Tell them around the dinner table, around the campfire, or as your child goes to sleep. Tell them because you’ve been asked to, tell them because it’s fun, tell them because it’s interesting.
Tell them because as author Bruce Feiler says:
The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.