Telling Family Stories
Telling family stories gives us strength in hard times.
Table of Contents
If you’d like some guidance, watch this video overview of the lesson below.
Preparation Guide (Optional)
Use these questions for personal reflection or journaling.
- What are the patterns from your lineage that you want to continue? What are the patterns that you feel no longer fit?
- What stories from your parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents haven’t your kids heard yet? Which stories — good or bad — do you feel are worth retelling?
- How do you make these stories the fabric of your everyday life?
What the Wisdom Says
“Do not despise the breath of your fathers, but draw it into your body.”
— Native American, Zuni prayer
“If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive in this moment. Each is present in your body. You are the continuation of each of these people.”
— Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk
“When you don’t know where you’re going, it’s important to remember where you came from.”
— African proverb
Suggested ResourcesUse these resources if you want to dive deeper as you prepare.
- “The Family Stories That Bind Us” by Bruce Feiler in the NYTimes. Citing psychology research, Feiler shows that knowing family stories helps your kids through hard times. He writes, “If you want a happier family, create, refine and retell the story of your family’s positive moments and your ability to bounce back from the difficult ones.”
- “What Kids Learn From Hearing Family Stories” by Elaine Reese in the Atlantic: “When parents share more family stories with their children—especially when they tell those stories in a detailed and responsive way—their children benefit in a host of ways.”
- Collect your family stories so they’re handy for future Uplift conversations. You might consider a digital service such as StoryWorth or GrandStories.
What the Science Says
“In the preteen years, children whose families collaboratively discuss everyday events and family history more often have higher self-esteem and stronger self-concepts. And adolescents with a stronger knowledge of family history have more robust identities, better coping skills, and lower rates of depression and anxiety.”
— Elaine Reese, Professor of Psychology and author of Tell Me A Story: Sharing Stories to Enrich Your Child’s World
Consider starting with a simple ritual that works for you: light a candle, meditate, pray, sing, etc.
If the video sparks questions from your child, let them lead the discussion and see where things go.You can also discuss any memories that arise as a result of watching the video, such as:
- Foods you ate as a child.
- Memories of your grandparents or great grandparents.
- Stories that your grandparents or great grandparents told you as a child — especially stories where they had to overcome something scary or difficult.
The following three sections — Uplift Teens, Uplift Kids, and Uplift Littles — are written to each respective age group. The activities can be done with the parent and child or by the child alone.
Know Your Past, Know Yourself
How well do you know where you came from?
Knowing the details of your family stories — especially the struggles and achievements — can help you through challenging times in life. At least that’s what a group of researchers found after studying the correlation between resilience and knowing family stories.
Here are some of the questions they asked young people. How many can you answer?
1. Do you know how your parents met?
2. Do you know where your mother grew up?
3. Do you know where your father grew up?
4. Do you know where some of your grandparents grew up?
5. Do you know where some of your grandparents met?
6. Do you know where your parents were married?
7. Do you know what went on when you were being born?
8. Do you know the source of your name?
9. Do you know some things about what happened when your brothers or sisters were being born?
10. Do you know the national background of your family (such as English, German, Russian, etc)?
11. Do you know some of the jobs that your parents had when they were young?
If there are any that you don’t know, ask your parents and grandparents to tell you the story.
Write Your Own Story
Stories can help us know who a person was. If our family didn’t tell us their stories or write them down we wouldn’t have their stories today.
We can start today by writing down our own stories.
What is a story about yourself you would like to pass on to the next generation? Take time now to write it down. You might write about a hardship you’re facing or have overcome. Or you might write down one of your happiest, funniest, or most embarrassing memories. What do you think you’re future self will want to know?
Remember that you’re part of something bigger. Your story, your body holds the DNA and stories from those that came before you, and others yet to come.
Hear a Story, Write a Story
Do you know where your grandparents grew up?
Do you know where your parents met?
Do you know the story of your birth?
Researchers have found that kids who know the answers to these questions are more likely to overcome challenging situations in life. How many of these questions can you answer?
If there are any you can’t answer, see if your parents know.
Do these questions make you wonder anything else about your parents or grandparents?
You might ask:
- What was a particularly hard moment for you in school?
- Who was a close friend? What did you do together?
- Was there ever a time you felt embarrassed?
If your parents and grandparents never told these stories and never wrote these stories down, these stories would be forgotten.
What stories do you want to write so people can remember you?
One girl wrote down her experiences in a diary that is still read today. Her name was Anne Frank. “Writing in a diary is a really strange experience for someone like me. Not only because I’ve never written anything before, but also because it seems to me that later on neither I nor anyone else will be interested in the musings of a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl. Oh well, it doesn’t matter. I feel like writing.”
You can write too — to keep your family story alive.
Here are some prompts:
- What are your favorite stories about your parents or grandparents?
- What is your favorite food?
- What is one of the hardest things that has happened this year? How did you deal with it?
Draw your family
Click the printable template below to draw your family.
Find toys that represent each family member — or play a game of charades where each person has to guess which extended family member you’re pretending to be.
Create a Paper Chain
- Cut construction paper into long strips that can be used to make a paper chain.
- On each strip, write down an extended family member’s name.
- Connect all the strips together to see how long of a chain you can create as a family or in teams.
- Optional: Hang up the chain somewhere around the house. Each day, rip one chain off and tell a story about that family member — or call them up and have them tell a story themselves.
Watch “I Am Moana (Song of the Ancestors)” (3-min video) from Disney.
In this scene, Moana is visited by the spirit of her grandmother, who gives her strength to continue on her journey.
Notice how the message correlates with the Uplift inner compass lesson.
“Nothing on Earth can silence the quiet voice still inside you.”
“The call isn’t out there at all. It’s inside me. It’s like the tide, always falling and rising.
I will carry you here in my heart, you’ll remind me that come what may, I know the way.”
Explain that when we’re tuned into our inner compass and our family stories, we can find the strength to make it through hard times.
Optional Activity: Family Question Game
- On notecards or post-it notes, write down questions about your family’s history (ex. Where was grandma born? How did Mom’s parents meet? What states has our extended family lived in?).
- Tape or stick these cards on a wall, door or window in the home with the questions hidden.
- Similar to the game of Jeopardy, take turns picking a card to answer.
- Play in teams or as individuals, and keep track of points! Discuss some of these stories as a family during the game.
- Optional: To include younger and older kids, create harder or easier questions. You can put easier or harder questions on different colored post-it notes to differentiate which questions would work best for each family member.
Consider closing with a simple ritual: blow out the candle, meditate, pray, sing, etc.
Keep the Conversation Going
Use these ideas to keep talking about this topic throughout the week.
1. Create a family narrative.
Citing research on families, the author Bruce Feiler once wrote, “The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.”
In light of this, discuss:
- Where did our family come from? (Location, religion, values, money, etc.)
- What are our current values?
- Where is our family going?
If you want to get formal with it, consider writing your narrative down using this basic template: “Our family consists of [family line] and [family line]. The [family line] came from [location]. They [description]. The [family line] came from [location]. They [description]. Our current values are [list]. We want [list].” Once you have a basic template, experiment with making it an engaging narrative. How can you create the feeling that you’re part of something bigger than any individual?
2. Do the Uplift grandparents lesson.
Use the questions in our lesson on grandparents to connect more deeply. You might be surprised, as Uplift families have reported, by stories you’ve never heard before.
3. Look at old family photos and videos together.
- While looking at old photos of them: How have you changed?
- While looking at photos of ancestors: Do you see your facial features in any of these people?
- How could we better connect with family?
- Who could we visit this month?
5. Create experiences that give your child an embodied sense of the people and the places they’ve come from.
A few examples:
- Stage a re-enactment of an important family story. Let your child take on the role of someone in their lineage. It could be an immigration story of an ancestor or a funny story of their grandmother’s first job. Try to choose a story of resilience, however small the moment.
- Take a field trip to someplace of significance to your family. It could be visiting a cemetery to do a grave rubbing, a trip to a park you loved as a child, or visiting the place your child’s grandparents met.
- Visit a museum that has exhibits about your family’s heritage.
- Take a day trip out of town to see a city or town of significance to your family history.
How was your experience with this lesson? We read and value all feedback.