When I was nine years old, I learned about my biological father for the first time. Up to that point, I didn’t think much about where I came from or my family connections. As you can imagine, the news about my “real” dad shocked me. I spoke with my fourth grade teacher Ms. Bienvenue about the matter. I don’t remember the details of our conversation, but I do remember this: she validated my desire to know my own history.
Perhaps your backstory isn’t as dramatic as mine (or maybe it is in other ways!). Nevertheless, over the last couple of decades, I’ve transformed this once upsetting news into my life’s mission: documenting family stories. I’m sure you’ve told your child a story to impart a lesson – or your parents told you a few growing up. Humans tell stories. Stories captivate our imagination. Perhaps more importantly, stories are embedded with the values we want to pass on.
Stories seem to be the “sugar to help the medicine go down.”
Talking to your children soberly about values like tenacity, courage or forgiveness can be less effective than telling a story about a person they know who lived through a real situation. In fact, hearing and telling family stories can strengthen our own character, as people and as parents. Our family’s narrative has the power to motivate and support us in becoming the person we are aiming to be.
A few years ago, I interviewed a woman named Nina. One of my favorite stories of hers was about racing sports cars up mountain passes in Switzerland. “I loved the Maseratis!” She was a teenager at the time and was racing against a bunch of guys. As she recalled the memory, she laughed, threw her head back and looked younger than her 70-something years. What were her grandchildren going to learn when they heard her story? Don’t let people tell you what girls “should” and “shouldn’t” do. Be adventurous!
This past year, we conducted 52 interviews with friends and family of a respected couple, Richard and Brenda. Each person was invited to share stories to pay homage to them. The story I loved most came from the least likely source: a CPA for Rich’s company. He talked about coming to Rich upon noticing an unpaid bill. The bill had been submitted to the company two years prior. The CPA remarked that no one would remember and “maybe we just let it go?” Rich shook his head: “Call and see if it’s been paid. If it hasn’t, pay it. They did the work, pay them for their work.” What will his grandchildren take away when they hear this story? Be honest. Don’t cheat, even if you can get away with it.
Passing down family stories strengthens your child’s character (even if grandpa wasn’t the most stellar human being, there are lessons in there, too!) Ultimately, nothing is more valuable than teaching our children how to become good human beings. Stories help the medicine go down.
– Jamie Yuenger, StoryKeep Founder