I grew up in a family filled with stories. My mom was a natural storyteller and loved to recount stories from her childhood in a small mill town. We heard about the time the family bought a goat while driving home from Disneyland, and how my uncle used to pick up my aunt by her ponytail and swing her, lasso-style, around his head.
We knew my grandparents’ story of conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They joined at a time when the gospel was just beginning to spread into Washington, and it changed their lives. There was a time, driving back from paying their tithing, when they knew they were coming home to an empty pantry. At that moment a pheasant smacked into their windshield. They had food for another day.
My dad told stories, too, of flying in Grandpa’s small airplane and running out of gas over the Grand Canyon. We knew that Dad moved sprinkler pipe on potato fields in Idaho, picked pineapples in Hawaii and took a broom as his date to the senior prom. We knew Grandpa, a lawyer, offered his services for free to those who couldn’t pay.
These stories gave me a strong sense of place. I came from families that laughed, loved and worked hard. I came from families who crossed the plains and families who built a church from the ground up in a small Northwest town. I came from blue collar and white collar and laughter and music made by voice, violin and trombone.
I recently chaperoned a field trip for my son’s fourth-grade class. On the bus ride to the theater, I had a long chat with Anya, a bright and solemn 9-year-old who just moved to the states from India a year ago. When I asked her why she moved to Minnesota, she said without hesitation, “My father got a very good promotion, and he was taught by his parents that you never turn down a chance for promotion.” I was impressed by her absolute conviction. This type of thinking, that you never turned down a promotion, was a part of her family narrative.
In a recent Harvard Business Review IdeaCast, Bruce Feiler, author of “The Secrets of Happy Families,” talks briefly about the power of story in shaping a family culture. He quotes research out of Atlanta, where hundreds of children were interviewed about their family background. Did they know where their parents went to high school, where their grandparents grew up, if anyone in the extended family had overcome a serious illness?
The results were astonishing. Children who scored the highest “had greater self confidence and a stronger sense that they could control their lives,” Feiler said. “It was the single biggest predictor of emotional well being.”
Feiler went on to say that “kids who understand they are part of a longer narrative have a stronger identity.” The narratives fell into three categories: the ascending family narrative (we came from nothing and paved our way to success), the descending narrative (we fell upon hard times), and the oscillating family narrative (hard times come and go — we always manage to pull through).
The third type of narrative had the most positive impact. Kids raised with that type of outlook understood they could go through hard times and still succeed.
When I heard about the oscillating family narrative, I instantly thought of the Mormon pioneers. We are a church with a strong story-telling tradition, and our pioneer stories are some of the most powerful tools we have to share with our children. There are pioneers who trekked West, but I also thought of pioneer stories that happen in the LDS Church throughout the world. Every first-generation member of the LDS Church has pioneer stories. So do those who have been in the church for generations. These stories cement us to our belief. They remind us that we can endure in faith, even through difficult times.
When I married my husband, I was impressed by how much he knew about his ancestors. In his family, these stories are told repeatedly. Family reunions center around these stories, and a great deal of time and detail goes into preparing booklets of history for family members.
We tell family stories for the same reason we study history and read scriptures. It is fascinating, fun and there is always something to be learned. But family stories are even more powerful than a history book. They help to shape a family culture.
I’ve tried to continue my parents’ storytelling tradition. My kids know all the funny stories of my childhood, as well as the moments that sparked faith or conviction. They know about their grandparents and great-grandparents. My husband is good at connecting our boys to their ancestors through stories of faith and hardship.
The stories we tell are more than idle bedtime tales. Our narrative is a powerful tool in raising children who, by looking backward, have the resilience to press forward.
Tiffany Gee Lewis lives in St. Paul, Minn., and is the mother of four boys. She blogs at thetiffanywindow.wordpress.com. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org