I have always loved hearing stories. The made up ones my Daddy told my sister and me at bedtime, the ones my mom read from books of myths, fairytales and fables, and the ones told to me by relatives – parents, my uncle or grandparents – about the past.
I listened with rapt attention to the tale of my grandmother ditching her parents at the boat to America as they escaped another pogrom in Russia, the story of how she and her best friend made their way to Palestine (her in high heeled boots) where she worked building roads and met my Grandpa.
His story was even more thrilling than hers. Having been forced into conscription to the White Army as “cannon fodder” – that is to be sent into battle as a body with no gun – he, his brother and his first cousin, jumped off the train into a snowbank and also made their way to relative safety in Palestine.
I loved hearing these stories and I learned so much from them.
From my father I learned that doing anything is worth doing well. He showed me this in his actions, but also in his stories of how he found many ways to earn money as a teen to help support his family when they arrived penniless in the US. But I also learned about his joy of music and Viennese pastry when he spoke lovingly of his place of birth – Vienna.
From my grandpa’s stories I learned that social justice was more than words, that helping others involved action. I also learned how humor can help you get through hard times.
From my mother’s stories of how her brother cared for her and taught her how to play stick ball on the open fields of Brooklyn in the 1930’s and 40’s, I learned how to be a good “big” sister and also that Brooklyn wasn’t always “hip.”
But here’s my true confession.
As much as I loved listening and learning, I rarely asked questions. I was shy. I didn’t feel entitled to ask – to pry – beyond what they shared. Maybe I knew that not all the stories were easy for them to tell. But most of all, I just didn’t ask.
Later, as an adult, hints of other stories came out, and I wasn’t so shy any more. I’d ask them to tell me more, or what was that like or how did that make you feel, in an effort to elicit more detail or more stories. As I began to see how rich these “ordinary” peoples’ stories were, I was more persistent about asking. And the more I learned about who these people were, what truly mattered to them, I understood more clearly what lessons they were teaching me through their stories.
What We Can Learn from Family Stories
“Remember the story you told me about great grandpa’s farm? What did you love about it and what did you do there?” revealed my dad’s deep love of nature and horses – who knew this city boy had that in him? Now it made sense why he’d make the effort to take us to state parks to hike on weekends despite his grueling work schedule, spend hours driving my sister to ride horses or digging with me and preparing a small vegetable garden in the sandy soil next to our house. He wanted to pass that love on to us.
“Please tell me more about arriving in the United States the day the stock market crashed” revealed my grandma’s incredible persistence, work ethic and positive attitude in the face of disaster. Her stories and her constant upbeat nature so inspired me I named my daughter after her.
Taking time to tell stories, getting grandparents or other family members to share stories, and even creating your own family stories is powerful.
We’re starting summer, a time many of us will spend with extended family. This is the perfect time to ask about (and even write down or record) family stories from the relatives you get to see. Or, if you have children or grandchildren, find some time to share your stories and why the stories are important to you.
Family Stories from Serious to Silly
The opportunity for family history and traditions to be exchanged across multiple generations of family members is a wonderful experience. Through stories told at family vacations or around the dinner table when grandparents visited, my children have learned from both of my parents and my husband’s father that, even if you live through the trauma of war or through poverty, you can overcome through hard work and the love and support of a strong intergenerational family. But they have also learned about romance, the joys of jazz and swing dancing and how to play games.
That’s right, not everything that is shared has to be serious. There are many funny stories that we share over and over and silly family traditions that get passed down and become part of the connection we share across generations.
Bigger Benefits of Family Stories
And in addition to the wonderful experience of sharing stories, research indicates that children who know more about their family tend to do better when challenges arise. Researchers at Emory University have discovered that kids who know family stories tend to have higher levels of self-esteem and confidence, self control and autonomy, resilience and grit. Knowing family stories helps children feel like they are part of something bigger, and that seems to help a lot.
You can explore the wonderful experience of sharing stories within your own immediate family as well. We have created many of our own “key stories” and traditions within our five person family that are now shared between my husband and me and our three kids. Hopefully we will have the opportunity to share them with a next generation.
How to Connect with Your Own Family Stories
This summer, hear a story, tell a story—and ask questions. Let’s make this fun and easy.
Here are some tips I’ve found helpful in learning family stories:
- Ask questions
- Dig deeper with open ended questions such as tell me more, or what was that like, or how did that make you feel, so you get the richness of the story.
Try hard not to share your story until the speaker has fully finished telling theirs. If kids are involved let them do the follow-up questions any way they want, grandparents tend to be more willing to tell stories when asked by grandchildren.
Here are a just a few questions you can help your kids ask of relatives this summer (or you can use these questions to tell stories to the younger generation), you can even ask siblings. I bet you’ll be surprised at some of the answers, and hearing them may trigger your own memories of fun stories.
Questions About Summer:
- What was your favorite part of summer when you were a kid? What was your favorite thing to do and why? What was your favorite summer treat? What is your favorite summer memory? Why?
- Did you have a summer job? What did you do?
- Did you ever go to summer camp? What was it like? Did you like it? What did you learn?
- Did your family have any summer traditions? What made them special?
- If you could only choose one activity to do every single day during summer, what would you pick? Why?
And more general questions:
- Where did you and ___ meet? (Personalize this one—Where did you meet Nonny? How did you meet Auntie Gwen?)
- Where did you grow up? What was it like?
- What was a funny thing that happened to you? Lucky thing? Hard thing?
- What was your first job? Your favorite job? Your least favorite job? Why?
Write all your stories down. Save them. You’ll be surprised how much it means — to you the writer and to those who read it. Often the first step in saving family stories is learning them, which means asking questions. Here are 5 to get you started.