There are a few things you can always count on during family holidays: kids showing up a foot taller since last you’ve seen them; Aunt Lisa nailing the perfect sweet-potato-to-marshmallow ratio in her signature dish; and roof-raising joyful chaos that leaves you flopped out on the couch once everyone hits the road.
And there’s another part of families’ gatherings that’s taken so for granted that we don’t even think about it: the tales that get retold so often that they become part of the very fabric of your family’s identity. But these stories aren’t just idle ways to fill the silence between forkfuls—they serve a real purpose in making our lives richer and more meaningful.
Family narratives bring us together
Robyn Fivush, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Emory University in Atlanta, studies family narratives. These reminiscences contribute to a young person’s formation of her identity and her understanding of her place in the world, Robyn says. For older people, sharing family stories allows them to satisfy what psychologist Erik Erikson termed generativity, or the desire to impart your wisdom and legacy to the next generations. “There is some anthropological and sociological research that suggests that these kinds of stories become kind of a family motif,” says Robyn, “like ‘We’re a lucky family’ or ‘We’re a family that struggles but overcomes.’ ”
What that means, says William Dunlop, Ph.D., a University of California, Riverside, assistant professor who studies personal narratives, is that these stories can affect a person’s entire worldview. A listener comes away with a sense of collective identity. “These stories say, ‘This is my kind of family,’ ” Will says.
While holiday time is not the only time family lore gets shared—car trips, dinners and other less formal moments are terrific opportunities to recount and listen—the gatherings offer a unique opportunity. “The thing about a holiday is it’s a chance to ask questions that a lot of different people might have answers to,” says Linda Coffin, the executive director of the Association of Personal Historians, an organization that encourages the preserving and sharing of people’s life stories.
“If you ask your mom about crazy Uncle Harold she’ll have her perspective, but with 12 people at Christmas, you’ll get a lot of different perspectives.” You come away with a richer, more three-dimensional picture of your family’s history and the people who formed it.
A hero in the family
There are many other life-enriching benefits to family stories, perhaps the most overt of which is imparting values to young people. “Sometimes they’re moral stories, or admonitions or warnings—what not to do,” says Marshall Duke, Ph.D., Robyn’s Emory colleague who also studies family narratives. Other times, they’re stories of what Marshall calls heroism. “In this case, heroism is doing something the listener thinks he would never do, such as picking up and leaving Europe and going to a new country, or overcoming some political and social obstacles.”
The idea that you are part of a group of people who are capable of such heroism—which almost everyone in a nation of immigrants is—is a source of pride to people of any age, but especially to teens and children. In his research, says Marshall, “we’ve found that heroic stories give strength to kids. The fact that they are related to someone who did this, it becomes ‘That’s what we do in our family, our family rises above.’ It teaches resiliency.”
A story worth retelling
Stories of her mother’s heroism had a big impact on Marisa Fox-Bevilacqua, 52. Her mother, Tamar Fromer, was a soldier in the Israeli underground. Marisa heard again and again how Tamar fled Poland alone at age 13 to Palestine, which was then under British governance before the state of Israel was established, just before World War II. “My mother told me how she and other girls smuggled [goods past the gates] in Jerusalem” to aid the Israeli statehood movement, Marisa recalls. The British guarding the city were too formal and polite to check women, Tamar recounted. “She’d just walk by with this big innocent smile on her face.”
Tamar also told her daughter of the pain of leaving her mother behind in Poland, where she died in the Holocaust. “Growing up with that story—you, too, can be severed from your mother—filled me with a lot of anxiety as a kid,” Marisa says. “But I think what she was trying to tell me was that you can’t walk through life with fear—you get over whatever it is that you’re afraid of, that you must adjust, that life is random and you have to make the best of it.” And while Marisa knew her mother as a homemaker, not a soldier, “I learned from her stories that girls can do anything,” she says, and that breaking the rules for a worthy cause was an admirable thing to do.
The past is prologue
Tales of events that took place before we were born don’t just help people understand their places in their families but also the families’ places in the larger world. “Because by listening you are now included in these stories, they become part of your history,” Will says. And especially when the story is being told by an older person to a younger person, the listener experiences what Marshall calls an “extension of the self.”
“When a 10-year-old knows about how his grandparents lived 60 years ago he feels a part of something that has been going on longer than he’s been around.” He is woven into an ongoing family narrative and on some level may feel a responsibility as a participant in the story, which, says Marshall, can help guide his choices in the future. The child, says Will, “is aware that his behavior affects the family in a broad sense.” CJ McKiernan, 48, of Somerville, Massachusetts, says she grew up hearing her dad tell a story about his own father that, while primarily humorous, nonetheless had a strong message about what was expected in their family.
“When my dad was young, he ran out of money in California and so he called my grandfather for help. Grandpa says, ‘They have buses, don’t they?’ ” she says. “So my dad takes a nine-day bus trip back to Massachusetts from California and finally arrives all dirty and tired and calls his father from the bus station to pick him up. Grandpa says, ‘They have buses, don’t they?’ It was rush hour and he wasn’t about to go pick him up at the station.” The moral of the story, CJ says, is “You are responsible for your own mistakes—your family is not going let you get hurt but if you do something idiotic, you take responsibility for yourself.”
But these family stories, experts say, do not have to be positive, funny or even have a happy ending to confer the same benefits of family identity and values on the people hearing them. In Marshall and Robyn’s research, adolescents who knew many details about happy and unhappy aspects of family history tended to have higher levels of self esteem, lower levels of anxiety, fewer behavioral problems and greater resilience. “They learn that bad things happen to good people, and we can overcome obstacles,” Marshall says.
They also learn that failure is not the end of the world. “Sometimes you work as hard as you possibly can and things still don’t come out well—it helps people accept that there are times like that.” The stories don’t even need to be true to bring the good stuff. In fact, says Marshall, they are often hardly true at all. “They have a certain ‘truthiness’ about them, as [Stephen] Colbert would say. They’re often embellished or the edges are softened.”
The joy of storytelling
Marisa and CJ both took away valuable lessons from their parents’ stories, but the upsides of family storytelling aren’t just to the listeners—the teller, too, gains a sense of meaning, which is often tied to generativity. Northwestern University narrative researcher and psychologist Dan McAdams and his colleagues have been studying storytelling and generativity for decades.
“Generativity,” he writes, “is an adult’s concern for, and commitment to promoting the well-being of future generations through…a wide range of endeavors aimed at leaving a positive legacy for the future.” “It’s kind of like, ‘I’ve gotten me figured out, now what am I going to give back to the world?" Robin explains.
Dan’s research reveals that highly generative people find happiness in telling these stories. “Not everyone achieves that generativity, but those that do report higher levels of life satisfaction and a sense of meaning and purpose,” Robyn says. People who are more generative, Dan’s research shows, also report telling more of these family stories, particularly ones with the themes of suffering, growth and human kindness.
Linda, who helps clients put their life stories into book form to give to their loved ones, has seen what telling personal narratives can do for her clients. “In sharing these stories, people get a sense that they’re passing on something that’s significant in a way that’s not always true of an estate that consists of things,” she says.
“It’s a personal legacy that they’re passing on.” Even if an older person is not particularly concerned about the next generation or needs to be coaxed to tell their story, “I find that people who tell their own stories have a sense of looking back through their lives and feeling a sense of accomplishment,” Linda says. “Like, wow, you know, I’ve had a life! Even if they didn’t do something ‘big,’ ” she says.
The tales that bond
In some families, stories are sheer entertainment, and the ritual and repetition of the same stories—with the same sometimes corny punch lines that families recite in unison—are what binds members together, even more than the specific content. One family classic of CJ’s is the tale of how her dad got lost driving to Logan airport. “Oftentimes the whole story won’t get told, because we’ve already heard it. It’ll be just one sentence, and it’s like hearing the whole story,” she says.
“Whenever there’s mention of someone getting lost while driving, we say, ‘You gotta go into New Hampshire to turn around,’ ” CJ says. “It’s the same joke over and over again, and the four of us think it’s funny. I’m sure it’s not as funny to other people, but it binds us together as a family.”
Of course, not all families have delightful (or even hilarious-in-retrospect) memories to share and some family gatherings are strained, but the stories we tell in those circumstances can also serve a positive purpose.
Sharing makes it hurt less
Siblings sharing gallows humor about a difficult parent, for example, is healthy and positive and bonds them together in a different way. “These stories cement the relationships,” Will says. “Nothing is better than not feeling alone. It doesn’t make the stories less terrible, but it does make you feel less isolated.”
What’s more, if a sad story is told during the holidays, around food and gifts and loved ones, the message is, “This terrible thing happened in our family history, but look how nice everything is now,” Marshall says. “Things pass and people overcome.” So don’t worry if it appears that the younger folks in your family aren’t obviously enthralled with your anecdotes that illustrate your years of accrued wisdom.
“You just want to put the story out there,” Marshall says. When your kids are adults and you hear them repeating your meaningful stories to their own children, you can sit back, enjoy Aunt Lisa’s sweet potatoes, and know that what you said did, in fact, make a difference.