542: Family Stories

A Thousand Things to Talk About
A Thousand Things to Talk About
542: Family Stories

What’s your favorite family story?

Full episode script

Stories are powerful. Family stories can be even more powerful, no matter how you define family. It’s the kind of statement that can be intuitively understood — after all, storytelling has an impact on our own view of ourselves, how we operate in the world, and even how we think. The importance of family storytelling is also a fact that research has looked quite deeply in to in the last few decades.

As the New York Times put it:

Drs Sara and Marshall Duke, along with a colleague, Robyn Fivush developed a measure called the “Do You Know?” scale that asked children to answer 20 questions.

Examples included: Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know where your parents met? Do you know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of your birth?

Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivush asked those questions of four dozen families in the summer of 2001, and taped several of their dinner table conversations. They then compared the children’s results to a battery of psychological tests the children had taken, and reached an overwhelming conclusion. The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. The “Do You Know?” scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.


The article goes on to specify the three categories these stories will often fall in to — ascending, descending, and oscillating. Oscillating stories — that tell both the ups and the downs of experience through generations — are the ones that help create a strong sense of self and understanding. As was written in The Atlantic:

For instance, experimental studies show that when parents learn to reminisce about everyday events with their preschool children in more detailed ways, their children tell richer, more complete narratives to other adults one to two years later compared to children whose parents didn’t learn the new reminiscing techniques. Children of the parents who learned new ways to reminisce also demonstrate better understanding of other people’s thoughts and emotions.

In other words, a story of family is as important as the story we tell ourselves. And while these studies all focus on children, I would venture a statement that family stories have an impact no matter your age — and that’s the case no matter how you define family. There’s an entire field of study called sense-making, which is how groups of any type and any size preserve a core identity and create a place to grow from.

This script may vary from the actual episode transcript.