Since the development of language, people have shared stories. Our prehistoric ancestors used stories to bond, teach, and entertain and today we continue to use stories for these same reasons. Not much has changed. Or has it?
While the power of stories to move us has remained constant, the main source of these stories has changed. Family stories have been replaced by those created by distant organizations, served up to us conveniently on our ever-present electronic devices. The fading presence of family in the narratives that inform our behavior is costing us dearly. It is time to bring family storytelling back.
Stories have tremendous power. As they always have, stories today drive the spread of art, knowledge, and religion and inspire both peace and conflict around the world. Stories continue to unite and divide us, inspire and discourage us, enlighten and confuse us. But while the stories that influence us most were once told by family members and passed down from generation to generation, the stories we are exposed to now are more likely to have been created by movie studios, publishing houses, news agencies and other organizations to which we have no personal connection. These are the groups that dominate storytelling in our modern culture.
So what difference does it make?
It makes a big difference. We all lose a great deal when family stories are replaced by those created for the masses. Numerous studies, including those out of Emory University’s Family Narratives Lab, have shown that children who know more about their family’s history have higher self esteem, stronger sense of control and a greater belief in the their family’s ability to function successfully. These studies also identify the most important family stories as those that combine to form an oscillating narrative (“We had ups and downs but always persevered…”). Apparently, the better we understand that life is full of ebbs and flows, the more we appreciate positive moments when they happen and the more resilient we are when faced with life’s challenges.
For such narratives to become engrained within us and form an integral part of our core selves, we need to have a high level of personal connection to the stories they contain. That’s where family comes in. When told in the context of family, stories speak louder to us and give us a deeper sense that our lives are a part of something larger – part of a continuum that spans generations.
Families today don’t share enough. As a result, too few children become familiar with the rich trove of family stories that could serve to strengthen them. Modern families get together for holidays and celebrations but never seem to take the time to just sit down and share. We get caught up in planning and preparing. We take pictures and videos of the festivities but usually run out of time to sit down to really talk and really listen to one another. It’s often not until someone dies that we wish we had spent more time asking them questions and listening to their stories. Of course, by then it’s too late. Those stories are lost forever.
It is time to correct this problem. It is time to bring back family storytelling. Do we need to revive old traditions like sitting around a campfire, roasting marshmallows and telling stories? Maybe. But perhaps that could be asking too much. What if we could enhance the experience of storytelling with new technology and integrate it within the busy realities of modern family life? What if, in a time where our voices compete for attention with smartphones, computers, and TV, we could reinvent how family stories are told so they can be heard once again?
Humans are inherently visual creatures and by imbuing our stories with photos, videos, quotes, and other text, we can add interesting new dimensions to them. Capturing and communicating our stories in these multi-faceted ways not only helps us better remember them later, but also makes them far more shareable and consumable amongst our modern families. Thanks to technology, we’re no longer restricted to long sessions of in-person storytelling, but can communicate stories immediately in bite-sized chunks across vast distances.
While you may think your kids would rather play video games than listen to your stories, I bet that if you show them a couple of old photos of when you were a kid, they’ll want to hear more about your childhood adventures. They’ll want to visualize the person you were, the places you went and the things you did. Kids also love to discover what they were like before they could form memories of their own. Not just seeing pictures of themselves when they were younger, but also learning about the funny things they said, their likes, dislikes, strengths, weaknesses, dreams and fears.
This is why it is so important to collect and organize your memories. But that is only the first step in bringing family storytelling back. Making memories accessible and formatting them in ways that work for you and your family is the next step. How about scanning a collection of your grandmother’s old pictures to use as story prompts when you visit her next? Creating a photo book full of pictures and memorable stories from your last family vacation? Compiling a narrated slideshow of your wedding day? Typing up and sharing a few of the stories you remember about growing up?
Embracing technology as a means to enable and enhance traditional storytelling allows us to utilize new ways to deepen relationships with those closest to us. Sharing your life experiences with loved ones forms priceless bonds, passes down invaluable knowledge, and can be a truly wholesome source of entertainment. From grandma’s favorite recipes, to how your ancestors dealt with their trials and tribulations, stories can teach us so much.
It has never been more important, nor more rewarding, to capture and share your stories. So whether it’s at the dinner table, your next family gathering, or through tools enabled by modern technology, remember to take the time to share and listen. You’ll be doing your part to keep an age-old storytelling tradition alive and in the process you’ll strengthen your family for generations to come.
Thanks to Cory Bailey for his help with this post.