Friday, March 17, 2017

Creating Family Stories

A family history is really a family's stories.  My story is what makes me ME, so it follows that a family story (or family history) is what makes a family THEM.

There's actually a lot of power in family stories, too.  Bruce Feiler's {article, "The Stories That Bind Us"} refers to some significant findings on how knowing a family narrative has a unifying effect on a family and on how family stories specifically help children.  Here's what the studies showed:  Children who knew a lot about their families and their heritage had a stronger sense of control over their lives, did better when faced with challenges, were more resilient, and had higher self-esteem.

Family narratives don't have to look a certain way.  They could be about overcoming difficulty, doing the right thing even when it's hard, or times when family members helped someone else.  Family stories reinforce the idea that we are capable and that there is hope.

Feiler also wrote a New York Times bestseller called "The Secrets of Happy Families."  In the book, he states, "Knowing more about family history is the single biggest predictor of a child's emotional well-being."

That's nothing to sneeze at.  Family stories are serious business, and telling them gets results!
How, then, do we tell family stories?
  1. First, start with what you know, as far back as you know it.  Write down whatever family history you know.  Where did your family come from?  What makes your family tick?  What makes your family interesting or unique?  What family stories do you already know?
  2. If you have living grandparents (or living great-grandparents, if you're lucky!), talk to them.  A recording that you can later transcribe (or even just refer to) is a good way to make a record of your talk with them, so think about setting up a video camera or just doing a voice recording.   Once they start talking, they'll probably think of stories they want to tell that you haven't thought to ask about. And don't forget to ask them to tell you about THEIR parents, too.
  3. If you have living parents, talk to them.  My advice here is to LISTEN.  You might think you know your parents, but you'll most likely be surprised.  Seeing them as people, individuals, is pretty enlightening.
  4. Write your own story.  Don't worry if you're "not a writer."  Pish-posh.  You have a story to tell.  However it comes out of your pen or keyboard is YOUR STORY, your way.  It's you.  Being natural and real will help family members get to know you.

If you're not sure where to start, ask questions.

Ask parents or grandparents (or yourself) where they were born, what their earliest memories are, what school was like, what their favorite hobbies were.  Ask:
  • about their favorite memories as a kid
  • their favorite and least favorite subjects in school
  • why they chose their career
  • a hard thing they overcame
  • the funniest thing they can remember happening to them
  • how they met their spouse
  • what memories they have of their wedding
  • what college or military service or trade school was like
  • about being a young parent
  • about church or civic responsibilities or volunteer opportunities
  • what they believe in
  • what their greatest goals in life have been
  • what makes them laugh and what makes them happy
  • what defining moments they had in life
  • what they always want people to remember about them.
Try to make these questions a conversation, not an interview.  Be interested, and make sure they know it.  Ask other questions that come to mind instead of just going down a list.  Ask them what THEY want you to know.

In my experience, most people don't think their lives or their stories are anything special.  But every single one is.  Especially when we're talking about family stories and family history.

And please don't worry if your family stories aren't very extensive.  I have family members of my own who would talk until their voices quit and family members who MIGHT give you three sentences about their lives if bribery was involved.  It's YOUR family, and within that family are a variety of people.  (As you well know, right?!)  Your family story should reflect your family.  Fill in the blanks if you can, but don't worry if you don't have a lot to go on.  Start with what you have.

Preserve and share your family stories.

Once you've gathered your family stories (which can and should be an ongoing process), it's very important to preserve them and then SHARE them.  I will literally get down on my knees and beg you not to type up your family stories and leave them in a word document on your computer.  The digital world is a fickle place.  A {Google study I read recently} states that if you keep your computer for five years, your chances of having a computer crash are ONE IN THREE.  At a minimum.

So if you have a digital version of your family stories, that's fine, but they need to be in people's hands.  This is me begging you to create a hard copy version of your family stories.  At the very least, just print out the document and tie it in a bow to give to people for their birthdays.

As I mentioned last week, storybooks are an easily-accessible, beautiful way to preserve and then share family stories.  {Here are my go-to recommendations for storybooks because of the heirloom-quality and the guaranteed photo privacy} plus {a few other perks, to boot}.

But there are other ways to preserve family stories, too.

Cookbooks, quote books, and even playing card decks are great options.  Remember the "family love stories" book I showed you in my first #familyhistoryfriday post a couple weeks ago?  There are lots of directions you can go for telling family stories.  We'll look at some more ideas next week.

Whatever you do, keep in mind what a great gift it is to know family stories.  In fact, it's the "single biggest predictor of a child's emotional well-being."Save

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This post was first published on March 17, 2017 at by Jennifer Wise.
Find other Family History Friday posts in this series by searching the Blog Archive in the sidebar (towards the bottom) or clicking the #familyhistoryfriday hashtag label below.


  1. I started recording myself "interviewing" some of my family and I treasure those recordings.

    1. Oh, I'm glad you did that! It truly is a treasure.


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