At my parents’ house, where I still end up every holiday, the table is always set with the same tablecloth. My mother serves dinner on the same china each year. And we eat the same dishes my maternal grandma, Ursuline, used to make. She was known for cramming maximum fat content into vegetable dishes, which someone always mentions as we push back from the table with full bellies.
Then we begin to tell stories about Ursuline; how smart she was and, as a young woman raising her little brother in the Depression, how tough. We talk about my great-grandfather Earl, who got paid in chickens when he started his legal practice. We tell the story of how my Uncle Tom proposed to Aunt Camille over a pay phone because he couldn’t bear to be without her another second.
The stories that define us
Those stories define our family, and every family has its own version. People tell these intergenerational stories universally across cultures, says family narrative expert Robyn Fivush at Emory University.
“For positive events, it’s very much about sharing positive emotion and creating a positive family history. For stressful or negative events, we tell these stories to help children understand and to help them process their emotions,” Robyn says.
Family stories help small children develop their sense of self and their own story-telling powers. But surprisingly it’s in teenagers where Robyn has found profound effects of family stories on well-being, behavior and developing their own adult identities.
“In adolescence these stories really seem to be roadmaps that teens can use to understand that they’re not alone in the world,” Robyn says. Often teens and tweens are mapping their parents’ experiences onto their own. Teens who can better recall stories from their parents and grandparents show less anxiety and depression and behavior problems. They also have a higher sense of confidence, self-esteem and say they feel more purpose in life.
A teen who knows the story of her mother’s difficult high school teacher or bad breakup might, explicitly or implicitly, draw on those stories to help her navigate her own trouble.
Stories weaving together generations
Intergenerational stories help convey the values of the family to children. They also illustrate how parents and grandparents have their own identities in the world outside of the family, and how one day the teen will, too. Family stories help adolescents bridge identity crises that can happen when teens and young adults start to think about the kinds of people they want to become and begin setting goals and visions for their own adult lives.
Robyn says families shouldn’t force intergenerational stories into their dialogues because that’s likely not to work—especially with teens. But infusing them into a normal conversation you’re already having does work. “If your child is telling you about a problem at school or with their best friend or on a sports team, you can say, ‘You know, that’s just like what happened to me.’”
And there are benefits for storytellers, too. Other research shows that parents and grandparents who tell tales of their own lives, especially those that reinforce the theme of resilience, are happier and have higher life satisfaction. This might be because happier adults are more likely to share stories or telling the stories themselves causes a happiness bump.
Either way, "a family pattern of interaction around storytelling is a great way to understand each other,” Robyn says.
Meredith Knight is a science writer based in Austin, Texas.