Strong narratives strengthen, bind families

Aug. 24, 2013 @ 07:06 PM

Many years ago,  I went on a vacation with our two young girls and another mother-daughter duo.  It was a lively excursion and a long drive during which all three girls told family stories.  I remember the trip because I was amazed at the colorful tales and intricate details that the children dashed off, often collapsing in laughter at the funniest anecdotes, and growing somber when the stories were scary.  They kept it up for most of the 10 hours we drove to and from our destination.

I thought of that journey today when I read an article about what makes families resilient and happy.  The conclusion, from numerous studies, surprised me.  “The single most important thing you can do for your family…is to develop a strong family narrative.”

In one study researchers developed a “Do you know” scale of 20 questions that asked children things like, “Do you know where your grandparents grew up?  Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school?  Do you know about something bad that happened in your family?”  I pulled out the “Grandparents’ Book” that Peter’s mother filled out when our children were born.  It answered many of these questions…but did our kids ever read it?

Children with the most self-confidence have a “strong intergenerational self,” said researcher Marshall Duke.  “They know they belong to something bigger then themselves.” 

My father told stories that tied me tightly into a cast of characters that I knew as family even though I never met many of them.  Uncle Cecil once lit a small fire under the belly of a stubborn mule – but the mule took a few steps forward until the fire was right under Uncle Cecil’s wagon.  My grandfather introduced two men to each other, having warned each of them, separately, that the other was hard of hearing.  I knew where my grandmother went to college and that my grandfather raised his crops organically at a time when most farmers were turning to DDT.

I wonder how much my daughters know about my grandparents and their siblings, or if these stories have pooled somewhere in my own memory -- not flowing on through the generations where they might do some good.  On the other hand, our kids have my childhood stories – the time our house caught fire, the crazy fun inventions my father built, and some of the challenges our family overcame. They have Peter’s stories, too.  Clearly our daughters have a family narrative within them – at least 10 hours’ worth.

Apparently businesses and even the military use stories and history to create core identities that bind humans into a larger entity.  In some cases this is called “branding,” and it can be both cheap and superficial.

I think it is worth asking ourselves which narratives we embrace.  We can examine the content of our tales.  Do they portray us as victims or victors?  As givers or takers?  As weak or strong?  To ask Einstein’s question, do they teach us to see everything as a miracle, or to disregard miracles completely?  Most importantly, is this the story that we want to see unfolding into the future?

My mother’s stories were primarily fictions, but glorious ones in which children flew with fairy-helpers and overcame tremendous obstacles.  Her true-to-life tales came when I was older.  They were told quietly and held many secrets.  Whereas my father’s anecdotes created scenarios of belonging, my mother’s were about seeking a way to fit in.  They were more painful, but portrayed strong women surviving within a harsh culture.

Whether happy stories or tragic ones, it is our place in the narrative that is important -- that “intergenerational self” that we come to know within a larger context.  I wish I had more of my mother’s true tales because I suspect that much of my own strength came from the hardships that were the base of her identity.  If we want to change the narrative, as my mother did with her fairy-tales, we must embrace the story we have, and then decide how to keep telling it.

A CHH columnist since 1998, Susan Gladin is a freelance writer, United Methodist minister and curriculum coordinator at the Johnson Intern Program in Chapel Hill. She tends horses and a home business on the farm she shares with her husband. Their two grown daughters live nearby. You may e-mail her at, or write c/o The Chapel Hill Herald, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.