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Telling Family Stories Matters

Bev Hartman, M.A.


Once upon a time...


If you don’t recount your family history, it will be lost. Honor your own stories and tell them too. The tales may not seem very important, but they are what binds families and makes each of us who we are. -Madeleine L’Engle, author

Drawing by Betsy Koning

As a teacher, I used to invite the young children to tell me stories that I would write down for them. A playful child frequently declined, but one day he humored me with a twinkle in his eye: Once upon a time there was a pig. He lived and then he died. The end. This ultimate short story became a frequent response to my own children’s request for one more story at bedtime, as I crossed the room to turn out the light.

Few experiences are more meaningful than how we come to understand ourselves and our place in the world. We gain this knowledge through the development of our personal story. Central to a sense of identity is our relationships. How do we see others and what is their view of us? Our unique story helps us to create an understanding of self, to use our voice to speak up for our values, and to claim what has meaning for us.

Why are stories important? They help us find value in knowing ourselves and in relating to others. In the sequence of our lives, we build a foundation from knowing our individual history, speaking for the present, and imagining the future. Developing a strong voice fortifies the individual and the family, it may eventually enable leadership in the community. Confidence in using story is useful throughout the life span from fostering early literacy, to introducing ourselves to the world in a college essay, or to guiding others in adulthood.

What benefits do our children experience through stories? They learn to listen (the first step in early literacy), take time to wonder, formulate worthwhile questions, learn more about themselves and others, and over time — -how the world works. Stories provide room for imagination, creativity, and communication that are useful capacities in finding one’s path. We get practice in taking others’ perspectives and in helping others to know our perspective. Stories are a path to knowledge and meaning.

Family stories can be told nearly anywhere. They cost us only our time, our memories, our creativity. They can inspire us, protect us, and bind us to others. So be generous with your stories, and be generous in your stories. Remember that your children may have them for a lifetime. -Elaine Reese, New Zealand author


Humans have a long history of oral tradition in storytelling, and these rituals are a form of play, learning, and connection. Many of us are comfortable in sharing a book, but the personal relevance in sharing your story as a parent — -the family story — -and helping the children to learn how to tell their own story is powerful. How can we guide children in this practice?

Drawing by Betsy Koning

· Start early through reciprocity of the give and take of language which is their first turn taking. · Modeling is powerful, so tell them stories about both epic and everyday moments of your own life. · Teach story conventions by helping them know there is a beginning, middle, and end. · Scaffold their storytelling by asking how does your story start, what happened, and how did it end? · Share family stories because children love to hear stories of when you were a baby


· Give them practice by telling anecdotes of when they were toddlers. Stories like the time they swiped an ear of corn from their father’s plate or hid one of their sister’s new sandals. It may be a family episode such as the time we spotted the fox in the park. · Build regular time for storytelling that fits your evolving family. Bedtime is classic, but meals, walks, and car rides also provide a setting for sharing. Of course, spontaneous telling is sparked Drawing by Betsy Koning from what is on our minds and the

context of life! · Learning to structure a story to engage the listener takes a mental construct and deliberate use of language. · Create the story with characters, time, and setting, and employing the senses to see, hear, smell, and touch elements of the scene. · Guide older children to transfer their storytelling skills into writing capacity.

Family storytelling can help a child grow into a teen who feels connected to the important people in her life.” -Elaine Reese, New Zealand author

If you spend 17 or 18 years in this storytelling tradition with your child, writing an essay for college that shares a personal story or presenting themselves for an interview becomes an easier task. If you describe values and knowledge in the stories you share, your child will have a powerful model when they try on leadership roles. They will know how to communicate a concept by using a personal story as example. Both in private and public life, your child will benefit from developing their voice to speak up for themselves, others, and important ideas. Learning the art of storytelling will help them know how to paint a picture that engages others.

Young children and teens are similarly in search of their identity. Stories are the means for children to understand their unique story and their role in the family and community. We can fortify our children with stories from our family lives, these serve as models and describe what we notice and appreciate about them. Intentional use of storytelling enables parents to use their voice, just as it helps children develop their own voice. This story-crafting process may ultimately strengthen relationships and bring forward meaning during the journey. Telling family stories matters. The end. Drawing by Betsy Koning


WRITTEN BY Bev Hartman Founder and COO, The Parent Venture. Educator and believer in the value of relationships, communication, and a competence view of learning.


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