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Family stories aren’t fairy tales — but kids still need to hear them

(Glenda Sburelin/Illustration for The Washington Post)

My father was always the storyteller in our family. Growing up, there were certain ones that became canon: the time his National Guard unit flattened an entire stand of trees trying to winch their tanks out of a swamp, or the night I was almost born on Manhattan’s FDR Drive.

And when I was a teenager, my dad told me about a night he was supposed to drive with his friend from New York City to his friend’s house on Long Island, and the car broke down. It was late, they couldn’t find a rental and my dad was ready to give up. But they finally found a car and arrived at the house around 3 a.m. That was the weekend he met my mom. Even after losing her to a long illness, my dad would still tell that story with joy.

Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about that particular tale. What if my dad had decided to go home? The story was wondrous, and it carried an undercurrent of anxiety. We were a family that was built on one lucky decision on a summer night in 1970.

Telling family stories is powerful, but not always in the way we think. Stories are a way of preserving family history, but more importantly, they create a sense of continuity and resilience, and — this is the thing we often forget — they build a framework to understand painful experiences and celebrate joyful ones.

“For almost any problem your family has, storytelling can help make it better,” says Bruce Feiler, author of “The Secrets of Happy Families” and “Life Is in the Transitions,” which chronicles his effort to gather stories from people across the country and identifies patterns that can help us all in times of change. “It can help your children in their life as they navigate changes. It can help parents grappling with work or health changes, or grandparents coping with aging and mortality.”

Parents who share stories about their childhood give children the knowledge that they are part of something bigger, and children who know more family stories may grow up with higher self-esteem and suffer less from depression and anxiety according to at least one small study. It can even help heal families who have faced trauma. But, like any other skill, family storytelling is a muscle that needs to be built.

It’s also not just about sharing the happy parts of our lives. Especially now, as the world enters the third year of the pandemic, we need to be willing to open up about painful memories, because it shows our children that they are not alone in going through something hard. The knowledge that their relatives and ancestors also had difficult times — wars, depressions, natural disasters — and made it through them can give children confidence.

“The more family members share stories with one another, the sturdier and richer their shared tapestry becomes,” says Dani Shapiro, author of the upcoming novel “Signal Fires.” “So often families carry unspoken burdens of secrecy and shame, and that shame leads to silence.”

Children pick up on these silences, even if they don’t know what is behind them. It’s not until “all the stories — the beautiful ones and the hard ones — are brought to light, that secrecy and shame is replaced by strength and a kind of liberation,” says Shapiro, who explores what happens when families hold back painful stories and secrets in her memoir “Inheritance” and her podcast, “Family Secrets.”

“When I speak about the power of storytelling, parents nod their heads and tell me they do this,” Feiler says. “Then I ask them, ‘When was the last time you told your children about something bad that happened to you?’ ” The way many parents scrub their stories of scary or painful details is a bit like the desire to sanitize a child’s environment, Feiler says. But if the environment is too sterile, children can’t develop the immunity they need. “We have this idea as parents that we don’t want to burden our children, but instead we burden them with ignorance,” he says. “Stories need to have some germs in them.”

So how do you build the muscle of storytelling in your family? Look to the elders, Shapiro says. “Create moments in which storytelling is possible. It doesn’t happen in the midst of a busy day or when everyone’s scrolling through social media on their phones. It requires some effort, perhaps even a family ritual.”

Children learn to tell their stories by listening to how their parents, grandparents and older relatives tell theirs. Whenever there are moments of contact with family members — dinners, gatherings, car trips — those are opportunities for storytelling, Feiler says — often with a built-in script. “You can ask, ‘How did you celebrate this when you were young?’ ” he says. If you’re stuck, try asking something such as: What did you wear when you did this? “Prom, graduation, school dance: It’s a foolproof opener for a parent or a grandparent.”

By nature, children are self-focused, so they like stories that relate back to them; like when a grandparent discusses their first day of school when a child is starting kindergarten. As a parent, I’ve found the phrase “tell me more” has powers that questions such as “How was your day?” and “Did you have a good time?” do not possess. Perhaps it’s because “tell me more” signals to your child — or to anyone else, for that matter — that you’re interested in the story itself, rather than the information within it. How we tell stories is, after all, as important as what’s in them.

And if you cannot be face to face, there are still many tools at your disposal. When the pandemic began and we had to cancel a planned visit to my dad and stepmother, I started emailing my father questions: “How did your parents talk to you about the war?” “What was it like to be the first person in your family to go to college?” A few weeks later, my stepmother would mail me back his handwritten answers. One of the things I discovered was how much growing up during World War II had shaped him. I learned about the pride he felt in how his family and community pitched in to the war effort, but also about how, as a child, he would watch the news reels at the movies or sit on the steps of his house listening to the grown-ups talk about how badly the war seemed to be going, and he would feel afraid. I had never known that, and it led to us talking about how my own children might feel, growing up during a pandemic.

For more tech-savvy storytellers, there are tools such as Dragon Speech, speech-recognition software that can be downloaded as a speech-to-type app. Feiler has also formed a partnership with Storyworth that sends weekly, handpicked questions from Feiler, based on his experience interviewing people about their lives, to grandparents, who record their answers and receive a keepsake book after a year.

The most important thing, Feiler says, is to meet the storyteller where they are, whether that’s through dictation, video, writing or being interviewed.

Finally, don’t shy away from the wolf in the fairy tale. “Just when everything is going wonderfully, along comes the wolf to muck everything up,” Feiler says. “Our instinct as storytellers, and certainly as parents, is to banish the wolf. But if you banish the wolf, you also banish the hero.”

The same goes for family secrets that might feel shameful. Life includes “a whole range of stories and memories, and I don’t think it’s healthy or useful to turn away from difficult things that happened, because they did happen, and they have an impact on us, whether we acknowledge them or not,” Shapiro says. In fact, it’s often the unacknowledged stories that have a greater effect, because they grow and fester in the silence, she says. “Once these difficult times have been given voice and space, they actually recede and just become part of the larger tapestry of a family’s life.”

When my children were very young, I didn’t tell them stories about my own mother, because she died when I was a teenager. I worried they would learn this could happen and be frightened. It was not until my 4-year-old son looked straight at me and said, “Do you know anyone who died?” that I told him about my mom. He could feel the shape of my silence, if not its meaning, and I realized it was my fear, not his, that was keeping me silent. After that, I told them stories about her, and the relief of speaking about her again was like something inside me coming ashore.

I do not know how my children will tell the story of the pandemic, because we are still in it. But what I hope is that they understand that all of our stories are important — not just the ones with happy endings.

Anna Nordberg is a freelance journalist who writes about parenting and culture. Find her on Instagram: @annanordberg_writer.

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