The Importance of Storytelling in Families

My kids with my parents! (I feel a story about to break out.)
when my two teenage children are with my parents – their grandparents – in my home state, they consistently ask for stories about me as a child or teenager. they ask for stories to be told and retold. when they stumble onto one they haven’t heard before, they come to me and ask me to retell it also.

there’s more to this than the obvious surface stuff of finding out dirt on their dad. hearing these stories helps my kids gain more of a sense of identity, connecting them to the lineage of their origin. the stories become part of who they are. the stories become their stories.

throughout history, our current culture stands unique in our affinity to facts. families, throughout time, have been more interested in stories. in fact, education in jewish households was more about storytelling than anything else. before anyone had a copy of the bible or torah in their homes, oral histories (not even printed stories, let alone printed propositions) were the primary means of remembering who we are, of remembering where we came from.

case in point: the passover seder dinner is all about storytelling. each element of a passover dinner is meant to call up another important element of God’s great rescue, reminding the teller and listeners who they are as god’s chosen, as god’s beloved.

of course, jesus is a fantastic example for us in this: he was an amazing storyteller, often preferring a story (real or imaginary) over other forms of communication. jesus knew that stories capture imagination. stories allow listeners to find themselves in the characters. stories – especially the right stories – encourage us, as the lion king’s mufasa reminded his son simba, to “remember who you are.”

i love what paul (in a fatherly voice) writes to young timothy in 2 timothy 1:5 — i am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother lois and in your mother eunice and, i am persuaded, now lives in you also. paul doesn’t unpack the stories here, but he reminds timothy of stories tim knows well, and has heard over and over again his entire life, stories that tell him, “remember who you are.”

we parents tended to be pretty good about storytelling with our kids when they were little. we bought all those cardboard covered picture books and read them out loud until we wanted to do imaginary harm to the imaginary characters. we sat with our kids watching veggietales or other cute story videos. stories that were cute until about their seventh viewing (and not so much at their seven hundredth viewing). we sat on the edge of their beds at night, making up wild and wonderful tales, full of humor and pathos and wonderful morality and lessons of courage. try that with your 17 year-old son! (no, really, don’t.)

so when did we stop telling stories with our kids? and, more importantly, why did we stop telling stories with our kids?

sure, our stories have to evolve a bit, if we’re going to continue them with teenagers. storytelling with teenagers is less about snuggling and unicorns, and more about the real stuff of life. remember, normal teenagers view their parents as permanently middle-aged. they don’t have much imagination about what you were like as a child or teenager, unless you tell them.

if lines of communication are already open and strong in your family, storytelling is a great way to keep them that way. and you’ll be amazed at the other stuff that will come up before, during, and after stories.

but if lines of communication are already strained, i’d like you to hear a few things. first, don’t panic. you’re normal. yes, this is difficult; but it’s normal. in fact, your goal as a parent of teenager is to wean them from the dependence on you that was normal when they were children. relationships and independence and communication all – necessarily – shift during these years. to try to keep them from shifting actually does damage to your teenager’s development. but consider using stories to create a safe DMZ of communication.

even though it will feel forced at times (that’s ok – some level of uncomfortability is ok), structure some sharing times that are built around stories, not check lists of “what did you do?” that feel more like a gestapo interview than loving parental involvement. my friend, who now has a great relationship with his young adult son, used to tell his distant and moody then-16 year-old son, “you don’t have to like this, and you don’t have to make eye contact with me, and you don’t even have to say anything other than the bare minimum; but you will be going out to breakfast with me once a week until you’re 18, and you will listen to me tell you stories, and you will tell me one story about your week.”

storytelling, by the way, isn’t only important for younger generations. storytelling is beneficial for older generations also! in our culture of disposability and instant-everything, stories provide an anchoring, a macro-level picture of the values most important to us, values like obedience to god, courage, faith, hope, and love. 16 or 75, we all need to be re-anchored to those values.

one of the practices we have embraced in my family is storytelling around the dinner table. we have a no cell phones policy (which, these days, is less about taking phone calls than it is about texting or mobile facebooking or other interruptions that take place just below the edge of the dinner table). sometimes we take turns telling low points and high points of our day. with each of these comes a story. we all learn about each others’ values, each others’ needs, each others’ spiritual and emotional states. often, a story of the day will bring out a “that reminds me of the story of that time…,” with a request or one family member or another to retell one of our arsenal of favorites.

here are some ideas for you to try:

    host intergenerational storytelling dinners. instead of everyone bringing a dish to share, each person has to bring a story (or a few stories!) to share – real stories, not made-up stories. give the categories ahead of time, just like you would for a potluck, and have them choose stories in 2 or 3 categories. make sure you clear the date first with your teenager, because they’re who you really want there! shoot for at least one person or couple from every generation. allow for q&a after each story.
    highs and lows. described above as a practice my family uses, have each family member, over a meal, share a story of a high point and a low point of their day. if your family is open to it, you can add an ancient prayer element to this practice by together noticing where God was present in both the high and low moments.
    letter writing. yes, in these postmodern days, the art of writing snail mail seems almost ancient (especially to teenagers). but, particularly if you older relatives aren’t local to you, asking them to write out stories from their youth and young adult years can become family keepsakes.
    oral history recordings. many teenagers are skilled at simple video editing. challenge your teenager to interview grandparents and other older relatives (or, older people in your church) about what life was like when they were younger. video the interview, and edit it into a short piece you can keep. store them on youtube and share them with other family members (or church members), inviting them to add more.

8 thoughts on “The Importance of Storytelling in Families”

  1. Dang, this is so good.

    In the past year, Kristen and I have been in high storytelling mode with the 2 older kids. I think we’d not shared a lot before because we thought they wouldn’t care. I remember it starting with taking Megan to a football game. I told her that one reason I take her to football games is because my dad took me to football games. Then we talked for a long time about growing up with Notre Dame as part of my playground and stuff like that. The same is true with Kristen, sharing with them about growing up on the mission field. When her folks are in town our kids try to corroborate the stories! “Mom said ____, is that really true?”

    I know for me, one of my great joys has been getting my grandma to talk about her life. We were on a long car ride once and she told me that she’d visited all but 2 states, Alaska and Hawaii, mostly as a young woman before she got married. For hours we would ask her to tell us about her trips to [insert the state name]. The crazy part was that my dad was in the car and had never heard any of those stories!

    Great topic and tip for parents. You should write a book…

  2. Thanks for this, Marko. I’d also encourage parents to keep focusing on the Biblical narratives–especially with young children. So often we get caught up in moralizing the Bible and giving young kids abstract principles their minds cannot possibly handle. As a youth pastor and youth ministry professor, I would be thrilled if the teens and college students coming into my church/classroom simply had a Biblically narrative base from which to start.

  3. When we can weave the stories of our children, our ancestors and ourselves into the story of God, then we really have something special!

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