the power of storytelling
There have been a wonderful flurry of bits about a recent New York Times article about the significance of storytelling in families.
As personal bloggers, I think most of us can appreciate the value of telling our stories. It’s cathartic and therapeutic. It helps us process and make sense of life events and challenges. Sharing connects us to others with similar experience. Documenting our stories leaves a mark, perhaps even a signpost for those who might pass through later.
We also know that storytelling can enrich the lives of children, cultivating imagination with a sense of wonder. It sparks creativity with visions of worlds beyond their own.
Yet it seems that storytelling serves other critical functions for children, as well. Telling children your family story can build self-esteem, teach conflict resolution, model resiliency, and offer a sense of control over their lives while connecting them to something bigger and stronger than themselves. According to the article, “The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.”
Learning about one’s family history can help a child make sense of the world and his/her place in it. It’s what sociologists refer to as “sense-making, the building of a narrative that explains what the group is about.” Yet stories also offer tools to cope with everyday challenges and traumatic events. A team of psychologists asked children a series of “do you know” questions (about their parents and grandparents, their birth, etc.) and concluded: “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.” In fact, they determined that historical family information was “the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.”
In our family, we tell a lot of stories. We tell stories at the table, in the car, on long walks, at bedtime. We talk about how each of our girls came to be with us and how we came to be with each other. We weave in key characters, like Jaye’s birth family members, acknowledging their place in our family. We talk about those no longer with us. And we make room for new stories, every day.
With adoption, this notion of telling stories is critical. I think it’s fundamental to our daughter’s well being — i.e., her sense of belonging, of knowing who she is and where she came from and how loved she is by all. Jaye in particular comes from a long line of very strong women and she holds a significant place in her family of origin as well as her family through adoption. The act of listening, of telling and re-telling our family story is how she may begin to integrate her personal story — which inevitably diverges from ours because it is hers alone. Telling her story is how I hope to help her feel whole so she never has to choose one part of her life over another, or what my friend Lori calls her biology and biography. The storytelling theory clearly relates to a certain appeal of openness in adoption, in that we try to help our children make sense of their history, their stories, as we write our own together as an extended blended family.
The author suggests that for a “happy” family, you should “create, refine and retell the story of your family’s positive moments and your ability to bounce back from the difficult ones.” I can’t say with certainty that telling our family story will offer our daughters anything more than information. But if we can impart important life lessons, confidence and self esteem, a sense of belonging and utility; if we can help our children overcome challenges with strength, resilience and resolve, well then that’s as good as any reason I’ve ever heard to tell a good story.