You have all the time in the world, until suddenly you don’t.
Updated: Oct 8, 2021
Living through a pandemic has forced many of us to face our own mortality, along with that of our loved ones. It's a great time to think about documenting your family's stories before it's too late.
As this article states, "It’s a common regret: “I wish I’d asked my grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles more about their lives.”
It’s a common regret: “I wish I’d asked my grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles more about their lives.”
Most people don't know much about their family history. This is because people usually don't become interested in genealogy until they're in their 50s and 60s, when they have more time to reflect on their family identity. The problem is that by that time, their grandparents and parents have often already passed away or are unable to recount their stories.
Because of this, we're losing generations of stories, and all of the benefits that come with them. "Because our families are among the most important social groups we belong to and identify with, stories about our family tell us who we are in the world, and who we should be," says Robyn Fivush, Ph.D., one of the researchers behind the study The Power of Family History in Adolescent Identity and Well-Being. "Stories about our parents and grandparents provide models of both good and bad times, as well as models of overcoming challenges and sticking together.”
The solution to this problem is to get people interested in their family histories when they're still adolescents or young adults, when they can still hear directly from relatives. But how do we cultivate an interest in each other to begin with? By asking thoughtful questions, participating in storytelling, and by focusing on our similarities with our relatives.
Using common interests and similarities really does help us connect — research bears this out: Our similarities make us more open to listening, and more willing to break down our implicit biases. “We make small decisions daily without much conscious thought," says Alicia del Prado, Ph.D., a therapist and one of the researchers behind the study What a Coincidence! The Effects of Incidental Similarity on Compliance. "We are more likely to agree to help someone when we see them as similar to ourselves, even if those similarities are small, like sharing a first name or a birthday. This approach doesn't mean that our differences don't matter, but rather that an acknowledgement of similarities can be a productive place to start.”
Thanksgiving, when generations of families are often gathered together, is the perfect time to get the ball rolling and discover some similarities through conversation. Here are some ways to initiate intergenerational storytelling:
Before you begin, remember that the way family stories are framed is important.
Jody Koenig Kellas, Ph.D., a professor of communication studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who does research on family identity and storytelling, cautions that how we tell our stories matter. “Families who engage in storytelling by being present and warm, who share the floor and build on each other’s contributions, who seek out and honor each other’s perspectives on how things happened or the meaning of the story, and who work together to create the meaning or moral of the story — these families report higher levels of health and happiness than families who are distant, disengaged, don't take each other’s perspectives into account, and don't work together to build story meaning,” Dr. Koenig Kellas says.
Start by figuring out what you have in common.
To find similarities, sit down around the Thanksgiving table with relatives and ask each other meaningful, interesting questions such as:
What’s the most spontaneous thing you’ve ever done?
What was your favorite toy or game growing up?
If you could learn any new skill, what would it be and why?
If you could go back in time, what is one piece of advice you would give your younger self?
What’s something you want to do that you’ve never done before? Why?
In what kind of situations do you feel most uncomfortable, and why?
Have you ever experienced or witnessed something that you can’t explain?
What is your weirdest habit?
Keep asking until you find something in common, and then tell the story behind your answer. Repeat.
Ask some questions about their background.
You might think you already know everything about your relatives because they’re you’re family, but we often don’t know even the most basic information. To get you started, here are a few questions Dr. Fivush and her researchers suggest asking yourself:
Do you know how your parents or grandparents met?
Do you know some of the lessons that your parents or grandparents learned from good or bad experiences?
Do you know the source of your name?
Where did your parents or grandparents grow up?
Do you know which person in your family you look most like?
Do you know which person in the family you act most like?
If you — or your kids — don't know the answer to any of these questions, your Thanksgiving icebreakers are all set.
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Everyday conversations are the perfect time to share stories.
You don't have to wait for large, holiday gatherings to start sharing stories from your family history. You can incorporate this type of storytelling into the everyday moments in your life. “Just keep an ear out for when your children bring up something that happened to them, either good or challenging, and relate it back to something that happened to you when you were their age," Dr. Fivush says. "Adolescents look like they're not listening and even act like they could care less, but they are listening and hearing and using these stories."
Dr. Koenig Kellas recommends the dinner table, car rides, and bedtime as other great opportunities for conversation. “At my dinner table, we tell best and worst stories of the day," she says. "And then sometimes it's easier to tell stories when there is time — like on a road trip — when we can discuss more vulnerable topics when we're not face to face. This might be especially true for teenagers."
“Kids also love to talk at the end of the day," she adds. "Asking about their day, and telling family stories, instead of reading a book at bedtime every once in a while is a way to incorporate family storytelling into life.”
Integrate storytelling into your holiday traditions.
Exchange stories about past holidays during the holidays, and have everyone write down the things they are thankful for every Thanksgiving.
Be creative with it. Ask people to come over with an object of significance to them and get them to participate in an impromptu "show and tell." Or have people bring pictures of themselves and some of their relatives at the age of 20 — or 30, 40, 50, etc. — and see how they look alike. Then ask them what they were like at that age and compare stories. (If the holidays are too hectic, consider hosting an "Ephemera Night" some other time.)
Hold space for others’ stories, and let them know you’re interested in them.
When you show you’re comfortable with someone and they know you care about them, they're more willing to share those important life moments.
Most importantly, prioritize getting to know others — and show your kids how much you value these stories, too.
You have all the time in the world, until suddenly you don’t.
When you get to know others' stories, you gain a deeper understanding of your own life. Like all investments in the future, you (or your kids) may not always be able to see the relevance of this kind of storytelling now, but the lessons learned about yourself — your identity, behavior, and potential trajectory — will pay off in the years to come.