One of my cherished memories from growing up is about family stories. Each summer my parents would rent a lake house and relatives would visit in a bit of a revolving-door style. Eventually, they would all have made a visit, often extended over several weeks. In the evenings we would sit around in the living room or outside around a campfire, and the stories would begin to flow. Ranging from stories of the elders’ experiences in their own childhoods to stories to catch us all up on our lives to stories about past summers. For me, it was a particularly fascinating experience, and truthfully a bit intimidating, to hear what these valued people in my life, including my parents, had to say about me.
Let's take a look at some of the compelling research behind the impacts of family stories, specifically their association with the development of emotions as related to the self for young children.
Reminiscing is a social activity and it is these stories of our past that greatly define who we are. Through sharing such stories with people close to us, these memories take on personal meaning for the self. A group of researchers from Emory University have been particularly active in this area through their work at the Sloan Center for the Study of Myth and Ritual in American Life, and I’m drawing from their considerable research findings.
They and other researchers have found that the more children know about their family histories:
Pretty powerful! So, just how does this happen?
It turns out that it is not really about the content of family stories, but the communication style used by adults to reminisce with children. For a family to construct a coherent narrative together, each part of the story must be explained, and each member’s perspective accounted for and valued. The emotions, thoughts, and feelings of all the family members are integrated. As all the family members add to the story, it becomes more complete, and more complex, than if only one member is telling the story alone.
With this communication style, children are actively and positively included. This happens with the adults’ guidance, particularly needed for young children. As the process plays out in a safe and secure relationship space, children are more likely to feel good about themselves as people and believe that they have the ability to control their emotional responses around events in their lives.
However, on the flip side, a communication style that is controlled and dominated by adults is related to poorer emotional outcomes for children. Children may be asked to contribute, but it is the adult who decides if the perspective is correct, or even worthy, of becoming a part of the family stories. Children simply do not get practice in processing emotions, nor are their emotions valued.
To help capture the positive outcomes possible through family stories, here are some strategies for you:
As parents, we often get caught up in rushing the family on to the next “event”. We want to ensure our young children have exposure to wonderful experiences. Take heart that you can slow down a bit, and embrace that what you do after can be just as important in your child’s emotional life and sense of self. Make story-sharing time a part of your family rituals, whether it’s during holidays or vacations, or just around the dinner table and on weekends where the family comes together to be with each other, and everyone will benefit!
Lilla Dale McManis, MEd, PhD
Dr. McManis is a psychologist and certified parent coach. Drawing on her 30+ years of experience, her work focuses on promoting optimal outcomes for families. Her main mission is to do so by translating research into meaningful practice for parents, educators, programs, and products, and policymakers.
1Bohanek, J. G., Marin, K. A., Fivush, R., & Duke, M. P. (2006). Family narrative interaction and children's sense of self. Family Process, 45(1), 39-54.
2Fivush, R. (2007). Maternal reminiscing style and children’s developing understanding of self and emotion. Clinical Social Work Journal, 35(1), 37-46.
3Merrill, N., Waters, T. E., & Fivush, R. (2015). Connecting the self to traumatic and positive events: Links to identity and well-being. Memory, 24(10), 1321-1328.