Sunday, May 19, 2013

Creating a Family Narrative

It had been a fabulous Mother’s Day, but not one I would have initially planned as my perfect day.  My kitchen was a disaster: dishes and pans and wine glasses littered our counter tops.  Toys were spread over the coffee table like art-imitating-life-gone-messy.  Outside, we lounged, exhausted, in porch chairs around the patio table.  The smaller cousins raced around the back yard, screaming and tossing bright balls in the air. 
Snuggled in her daddy’s lap, though, was my oldest girl.  As the adults talked and laughed, she watched our faces, and I knew what would happen next.  It’s the same almost every time we have visitors.
“Can we tell stories?”
And so it began.  Uncle Eric launched into an embarrassing tale complete with sound effects and voice-overs.  Aunt Emily made us roar with laughter and shake our heads in sympathy.  Nana recounted a childhood fiasco that had us giggling and tearing up.  We told family stories – and what we remembered of extended family stories – until sunset, with my seven-year-old listening and laughing and staring into the middle-distance, contemplating all she’d heard. 
Though our stories that night were lighthearted and silly, they were also universal.  As families, as cultural beings, we tell our stories, often passing them down through generations, teaching and guiding our little ones with shared history.  Sometimes, the stories are about a hardship that someone we know and love has overcome; sometimes they’re about failure, loss, or trial.  We remember details of hilarity and heartbreak, sweetness and success.  It all comes out in the retelling, and through it, our histories have meaning.
I read an article a few months back in The New York Times, titled, TheStories That Bind Us.  The author, Bruce Feiler (who has also written a book about the subject: The Secrets of Happy Families) had been researching the secrets behind what makes families and other organizations function better. From board rooms to dinner tables to military bases, Feiler searched for the common bridges that made groups work well together.  He found resilience, camaraderie, strong bonds, and a shared sense of teamwork among groups that practiced, of all things, lots and lots of storytelling. 
It turns out that kids (as well as employees, soldiers, and companies) tend to gain a whole passel of benefits from something as simple as having what Feiler calls a Family Narrative.  When children have heard (and heard, and heard again) the stories of oscillating hardship and success, disaster and recovery, they inherit a sense that their own lives aren’t about to be ruined by one misstep or embarrassment or failure.  They learn that we’re all a part of the whole, and that we’ll have troubles for sure.  But we’ll also have stories to tell about the wonderful moments mixed in among the difficulties.  Life is a mosaic of dark and light, and when we share the story of our great-grandparents’ wars or immigrations or recessions, we share the truth: we’ll survive.
The sharing of stories isn’t just something we do after a family meal, it’s a way to connect and communicate without lecturing.  It’s a way to build our kids into strong, resilient, happy human beings who look around them and see possibility rather than defeat. 
So tell your stories.  Create your family narrative.  Recount your histories, both good and bad, so that your children will know.  And in the telling, they’ll gain much more than a bit of entertainment.  They’ll be instilled with a personal history that can bolster them into adulthood.

[Originally published in The Joplin Globe]

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