Some of Rachel Tinker’s favorite childhood memories were made at family gravesites. Her parents’ recollections of relatives she’d never met, along with stories told by her grandparents, helped her see where she came from.
Apparently, her kids want the same view. “Hey, Pawpaw, tell me an old story,” is a common request from 11-year-old Allen when he’s with Tinker’s dad. Through tales of his Huck Finn-like childhood adventures as well as tougher stories about lean times, Allen is learning about his family—and who he is.
“It shows the kids they come from surviving stock,” Tinker says. “They’re going to make it no matter what hardships life throws at them.”
Sharing family history through storytelling is hugely beneficial to kids and families, says Bruce Feiler, who collected hundreds of life stories for his new book Life Is In the Transitions. For one, it gives kids a sense that they’re part of bigger family narrative.
“Sharing family stories with children lets them know that people around them, people they love, people they view as heroes, also underwent obstacles and overcame them,” he says. “Not just people in books and movies. People in their lives.”
In his book The Secrets of Happy Families, Feiler cites Emory University research showing that kids with more knowledge of family history have higher self-esteem and self-confidence, fewer behavior problems, and lower levels of anxiety. That might be because family stories give children a stronger sense of connection and belonging, which boosts their well-being, according to child development expert Elaine Reese, who runs the Story Lab at New Zealand’s University of Otago.
Family stories show children that they’re not alone—and that might help them later in life. “When these children encounter difficulties, they appear to be better equipped to overcome adversity,” says Reese, who has researched family stories for over 30 years as a professor of developmental psychology in the United States and New Zealand. “From their bank of family stories, perhaps they’re even able to draw upon a similar experience that happened to someone they know and love.”
Sparking a kid’s interest in family stories is easier than you might think. Children—especially between the ages of 5 and 12—are primed to listen to fictional stories from their parents. Real-life family stories are no different. “When they hear some, they usually beg for more, or ask for repeats of favorites,” Reese says.
Good times to tell family stories together are at meals, on walks and rides, and on special occasions like birthdays and holidays. “Children love to hear their birth stories on their birthday each year,” says Reese, who wrote Tell Me a Story: Sharing Stories to Enrich Your Child’s World. “Although most would prefer you leave out the gory bits.”
If you don’t have a ready supply of family stories, start creating one. Try these family-tested ideas from the experts.
Interview elders: Encourage children to ask grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, and other relatives about kid-friendly topics, like their favorite childhood toys, the home where they lived as children, how they met their spouse, and the biggest event of their childhood, Feiler says. If possible, record the interviews to create a video keepsake, or request written replies to preserve the stories and the handwriting in a scrapbook.
Play whose story is it? Reese suggests writing a family history clue on one side of an index card. (For example, This person’s high school nickname was Cannonball because he could throw a baseball really fast and hard.) Write the answer on the other side. Take turns reading and guessing, and continue to add index cards as the years go by.
Grow a family tree: Use tools like the National Geographic Kids Guide to Genealogy to create a family tree, showing kids how they’re connected to extended family. Then enhance all the facts and figures with funny or adventurous stories about those relatives that children can engage with.
“The science of human memory tells us that facts and figures—Great-Grandma Adele was born in 1887 in Key West—aren’t remembered as well as a story about an actual event from that person’s life, such as the time Great-Grandma’s pony got caught eating sugar cubes in the pantry,” Reese says.
Go on an heirloom scavenger hunt: When kids choose a family treasure on a shelf, wall, or attic, an adult then explains its origin story, Feiler says. (To keep keepsakes safe, set some ground rules, like “point but don’t touch,” before unleashing kids on their quest.)
Build family stories together: “At the dinner table, start a story about your most recent family vacation,” Reese says. “Each person repeats the previous person’s bit, then adds more to the story: ‘We made the campfire,’ … ‘We made the campfire, and then we made s’mores.’” Parents: You might need to help connect events or create a positive ending.
Share relevant stories from your childhood: For instance, if your child didn’t make the competitive soccer team, share how disappointed you were when you got passed over for the top basketball team, then ended up making friends and having fun on the B team. “Keep these stories short and dramatic, and avoid preaching,” Reese says.
Host an autobiography night: Feiler suggests occasionally turning family dinners into intentional-storytelling sessions by having everyone tell a personal story. To keep things low-pressure, ask everyone before dinner to prepare a three-minute tale.
Dish out food memories: While baking or cooking with kids, share bites of family culinary history, such as your favorite foods as a kid, who taught you how to cook, and aromas you remember from your grandparent’s kitchen.
Take a virtual tour: Use Google Street View for a show-and-tell look at family landmarks, such as your parents’ childhood homes, your elementary school, and the church in Italy where your immigrant great-grandparents got married.