Last month, I took my sweet grandsons to visit George Washington’s vast estate on the Potomac River—Mount Vernon. It’s one of my favorite places, and I’ve visited dozens of times. As we toured the house and the grounds, I found myself frequently subbing for the tour guide, telling little side stories here and sharing quick facts there. The day was a perfect mix of spending time together with family and remembering the history of this great man who lead us through the Revolution and served as our first president.
My grandsons were genuinely interested in the stories I told, just like I was interested in the same stories when I was their age. And although it’s true that I do love history, it wasn’t from reading a history textbook that I gained this love. It was from listening to my genealogist father tell stories about my own family’s history—including the detail that our family line includes the great George Washington. The first time I visited Mount Vernon, the chills I felt running up and down my spine were not just because I stood where the Founding Father of our country had once lived, but because I felt connected to him as a distant cousin . . . I felt connected to his stories.
Stories have great power:
They provide a shared experience between the listener and teller.
They help us develop empathy.
They provide a timeless link to the past—to ancient traditions, myths, legends, and symbolism.
They help us make meaning of life. They explain why we make the decisions we do, they help us create our own identities, and they guide us as we find our places in the world.
Motivational speakers, in fact, often use a “story toolbox” from which they draw different types of stories to teach different principles.
Geoffrey Berwind, a professional storytelling consultant and trainer explained to Forbes magazine that “There are a number of powerful strategic stories you could use to persuade and influence. A ‘Purpose Story’ is a big picture story that conveys a big idea. Use ‘Example or Proof Stories’ to illustrate how others overcame a similar problem and had a successful outcome. When offering a change-idea, craft a ‘What If?’ or ‘Imagine . . .’ story.
“In your ‘story toolbox’ you can also use Cautionary stories, Teaching stories, Inspirational stories, and your own Everyday stories that make you more relatable to your audiences.”
If this works in the public speaking arena, it’s no surprise, then, that your own family’s story can have a tremendous influence on your life—teaching powerful lessons about the past and providing valuable advice for the future. In 2008, the journal Psychotherapy reported that “knowledge of family history is significantly correlated with internal locus of control, higher self-esteem, better family functioning, greater family cohesiveness, lower levels of anxiety, and lower incidence of behavior problems.”
The great thing about family stories is that they can be shared anytime and any place. You don’t need a book in hand or an assignment from your child’s third-grade teacher to share a story from your own childhood.
During a recent trip to Yellowstone National Park, one of my friends told her children about a story her own mother—their grandmother—had told her during a family road trip to Yellowstone in the late 1980s. Her mother had also visited the park twenty years earlier, in the 1960s. The family had picnicked on the side of the road and then quickly packed up the picnic and put everything back in the trunk of the car so they could go on a walk down a nearby trail.
When they returned to their car, they found two bears leaning over into the open trunk of their car, eating cookies left over from the picnic. A bit of chaos ensued as everyone ran to the front of the car and tried to squeeze into it from one door. Her father (my friend’s grandfather and her kids’ great-grandfather) told them he was going to shoo the bears away and asked them to start the car so he could jump in afterwards and they could drive away.
Somehow, he ended up closing the trunk on one of the bear’s noses. The bear yelped in pain, and took off running with his companion. My friend’s uncle was so startled, he immediately put his foot on the gas and started to drive away . . . leaving Dad alone on the side of the road! He got about a hundred yards before he realized his mistake and turned around. The rest of the drive out of the park was spent with the entire family laughing hysterically at the circumstances.
My friend’s children loved the story! And they laughed heartily as they imagined their now-sixty-five-year-old grandma as a pre-teen discovering a bear in the car and their now-deceased great-grandfather stranded on the side of the road as the car sped off. The kicker to the story was that it had been their grandmother who had “closed” the trunk before their walk. She intentionally didn’t shut it all the way because she wanted to be able to sneak in later when no one was watching and grab some of the leftover cookies!
It happened more than fifty years ago, but family members are certain to remember it—and share it—that much longer. It’s a story that provides a connection to other family members, to a specific place, and to a common family activity—summer road trips. It reveals that the family has a history of being able to laugh about things when they don’t go just as planned, which lets present-day family members know they can do the same today without being scolded or shamed.
It’s likely that you can find a family story to share for almost any situation. For example, you can tell your six-year-old who is nervous about starting the first day of school about how you met your best friend, Sam, on your own first day of school many years ago. At Christmastime, you can tell your kids about a particularly memorable holiday from your own childhood. Or perhaps there is a holiday that didn’t go so well but ended up being instructive nonetheless.
Telling your kids about hard times in your family’s history—and particularly how your family overcame them—teaches them that they can do hard things and that they come from a resilient family. Even mundane discussions of everyday events can bring memories to mind that allow you to share stories with your children.
As you tell family stories, leave in the funny parts and the sad parts. Share the scary parts and the unpleasant parts. Kids will appreciate the nuances in your family’s history and will learn themselves to extrapolate the important lessons of the past. The thing that matters most in family stories is that they are your stories—yours to laugh at or cry over, yours to learn from, and yours to pass on to the ones you love so they can do the same.
PS. Check out "Healing Your Family History" to learn more about family patterns and healing relationships.