The Treasure and Value of Family Storytelling.
This one originally appeared on Suscipio.
One of the best ways to keep your family close as it grows and adds members, either by birth, adoption, or later on with your child’s own marriage and children, is to integrate storytelling into the rhythm of your family life.
Storytelling need not be elaborately organized, and you don’t have to have an English literature or speech major to do it well. Simply sharing anecdotes about your early life, your family’s past and history and inviting loving relatives to do the same is all it takes to forge bonds, build closeness and give your child a sense of belonging.
When you snuggle up on the sofa with your child and open an old photo album you are showing more to him than just a glimpse of the past. You are showing him a peek into his ancestry, his history, and giving him a sense of his special place in this world.
Sitting at a dinner table with Grandma and Grandpa and listening to Grandpa give an account of his life as a young man provides a unique treasure to the listening child, who can learn from his elder’s experience many of life’s lessons- the value of perseverance through a struggle endured or the makeup of true enduring love. Children may find themselves curious about their relatives’ pasts when those relatives take the time to share the stories of their lives. How did Grandma and Grandpa fall in love? What hopes and dreams did they have when they were young? Listening to stories from relatives can expand a child’s horizons and help him understand things about his kinfolk and his heritage. Grandpa is no longer seen as merely the sage older guy in the family, but a living, growing, interesting fellow on a journey through life, just like the child himself.
Telling family stories also helps a child learn about the world and history in a general way. What was it like living on a farm? Did Uncle Mac really have to borrow a tie and a too-big suit for his First Holy Communion? You mean back then people didn’t usually have a selection of dress clothes? Great Aunt Marge liked to drink tea and sit on her porch visiting with her sister every single night after dinner? What do you mean when Mom was six she had to fold diapers? How do you fold diapers? That’s really how moms kept babies dry before Pampers? And so on…
Storytelling also benefits older members of the family. Sharing stories bonds the older person with the younger one. The elder can pass on his knowledge and wisdom, as well as factual tidbits of life that otherwise may be lost. The older relative generally has a very interested audience, and he and his perspective are appreciated.
“Family stories work to construct family identity,” states one study, entitled “Family Ties: Communicating Identity Through Jointly Told Family Stories”, which appeared in the professional journal Communication Monographs.
“…Story framing, perspective-taking, statements about selves-in-the-family, and identifying as a ‘storytelling family’ emerged consistently as positive predictors of family satisfaction and functioning.”
That’s good news for just about anyone wanting to delve into one’s shared ancestral past with her children.
Look at this summary of the benefits of family story telling. It:
–Helps create and maintain a child’s sense of identity
-Helps a child connect with the past and/or older family member/s
-Helps a child see himself as a valued member of the family
-Helps a child see himself as the unique person he is
-Gives the child an exclusive reference as to how he fits it- gives him a sense of his place in the world.
-When uplifting stories told, gives a child a sense of pride
-Helps a child learn valuable life lessons
-Increases a child’s knowledge of history, both personal and general
-Helps family members make sense of and cope with difficulty
-Helps an older family member feel valued and appreciated
-Helps an older family member feel satisfaction for his life experiences and a sense of purpose in his own life
How to Implement Family Storytelling
So, how should you start to implement family storytelling in your family?
Simply invite family members over for a meal and evening and start asking!
Generally, simply asking a relative to share some story from his past will get him talking, but sometimes we all need a prod. Use these questions, with yourself and your older relatives, to launch into a discussion with your children.
What was going on in the world when you were a teenager? What were the popular clothing styles? Songs? Did you live near other family members? What were YOUR grandparents like?
What did your bedroom look like as a child? Did you have any hobbies?
Who was your best friend?
What was it like on Sunday morning when you went to Mass? Did you all go together? Was it a big church? Small? What do you remember about that experience?
(If you are a convert to the Faith) What made you interested in becoming Catholic? What is the story of your conversion?
Is there a time you were afraid and overcame a fear? What was it?
What’s the scariest thing that happened to you?
Did you ever make something as a child? What was it?
How did you celebrate Easter?
Did you pray together as a family?
How old were you and where were you when you met your husband/wife?
When my children were very little I often called my mother to share with her some cute thing they did. Her advice seemed silly at the time but now I know is invaluable:
Write it down! She said. And I did. I’m so glad I did because memories do fade and I now have a large box filled with notes, scribbles on napkins and torn off pieces of paper, reminding me of what life was like with five children under seven, and the cute and glorious things they did and said. I can now share those things with them and eventually with their children.
And that’s the other side of the family storytelling. You not only tell about your or the older family member’s experience, but you also share the younger one’s experiences with him and the older members to firmly cement the bond. (Keeping personal, private or potentially embarrassing events quiet, of course, out of respect. This goes both ways.)
Not only is it important to share with your children what life was like in the extended family before them, but they also need to know what life was like when they were alive, but before they could remember. Sharing with them the cute things THEY did and said to you brings you closer and confirms how special they are to you.
My father-in-law was a bombardier in World War II. He hadn’t even finished high school when he enlisted in the army air corps to serve and help protect his country. One story he loved to tell… (By the way, repetition is good. It never hurts to hear a good story over and over. After all, don’t you enjoy classic fairy tales recounted more than just once?) Anyway, one story he loved to tell was about when his plane was shot down and he had to bail out of the aircraft, which was on fire. He parachuted to a little town in Belgium, (luckily for him it was friendly territory), and he was greeted by schoolchildren. He gave to the children all the chocolate that was provided in his flight suit. Soon, curious women came to see the man who fell from the sky. They were enamored with his parachute- made of silk, and which was, coincidentally, the same material they used for stockings. He gave them that and was a little bit of a hero, and a legend.
When my children heard that story for the first time, they no longer saw their grandfather as simply the golf professional and loving patriarch that they knew he was, but also as a hero and a young man of courage, and kindness.
My own father came from very humble beginnings. His mother had only a sixth grade education; his father an eighth. The pinnacle of his father’s success was working his way up to manager of a local A & P grocery store.
When my dad was young he used to hitch hike to the country club outside of town, to caddy, in order to earn some money for the family. He was under twelve. He carried heavy bags. He removed greens pins for putting. He washed clubs and cleaned shoes. On Saturdays after working 18 holes (about four hours on a nice day), he might turn around and do it again, all in the name of bringing home money for the family. Now, hitchhiking is generally not recommended any more and I would never let my children do it but it was a different time and I think it’s great for children to hear this story, even with mama’s protestations that Great-Grandma shouldn’t have let Grandpa hitchhike! That rebel, Great-Grandma!
After hearing the stories of Grandpa working double shifts and even almost being kidnapped (really!) our children have a new found appreciation for the person he is today. That’s why he values hard work and hates lazy attitudes, they surmise. That’s why he made his kids work outside jobs the minute there was one available. His experiences contributed to his personality, and his mental toughness…
We all have stories like these in our families. Find out what they are in yours and share them today with your children. In doing so, you will be passing along a treasure of inestimable value. You will be giving the gift of generations—stories of life and love and learning.
I am happy to share with you that BIG HEARTED is available for pre-sale, just in time for Mother’s Day! I’m so excited to share this book with you. I enjoyed so much collecting the stories for this very personal book about loving and generosity in families. A little synopsis is below. Each story is self contained- you can start at the beginning, the end, or somewhere in between.
If you are interested, follow the link here to pre-order, for a 15 % discount off the retail price- only good until May 1 and just in time for Mother’s Day!
It was early winter, 1987. I was 24.
I slipped into the bathroom for a blessed moment alone, just days after the birth of my first-born son. His had been a difficult birth. He was a challenging baby, not sleeping for more than an hour at a time, and fussy when he was awake. He didn’t nurse well. Or maybe I didn’t nurse well. I was an inexperienced mother and severely sleep-deprived as well as lacking confidence in my ability to care for and to raise this child whom I would have gladly died for on the spot if necessary. I loved him so much. At this moment, at this exact time, he had dozed off in his bassinet. I took the opportunity to splash some cold water on my tired face and sit on the closed toilet seat in the little peach-colored, plastic-tiled bathroom in our first house not bigger than my current living room and kitchen put together. It was a strange place for a prayer, but somehow it seemed right and the words just poured from my heart.
“Dear Lord, I don’t know if You will see fit to bless me with more children. I hope that you do, but if you don’t I want to say THANK YOU for this beautiful child. I love him so much. Thank you for entrusting him to me and David. Please help us raise him to glorify You. I dedicate him to you now. Please protect him spiritually, mentally, emotionally for his whole life until he returns to You at the end of it. If I forget to pray each day, take each breath of mine as a prayer for him and any other children you send. Let every sacrifice of mine that I forget to offer, be offered for him, and them. Please help me be a good mother and wife. Please help me know how I am supposed to raise him. ….And please, please help me get some sleep tonight. Amen.”
And that was it.
I brushed a stray hair from my face, took a deep breath and emerged from the bathroom ready to continue. Or, should I say, begin.
Twenty four years later, my husband and I are “finished” raising this first child, although he is not “finished”, as none of us are until the day we die. God saw fit to bless us with eight additional souls to raise. He took five more for Himself early on, and we are confident we will meet them in heaven some day. I’ve thought often about sitting in my little bathroom so many years ago, and the prayer that I felt so deeply, so vividly in my heart. It has been easier, and yet harder than I ever imagined, raising our Catholic kids.
Someone recently asked me, “What do I need to know, about raising Catholic children in today’s world?” I had to stop and think about it, for the answer is both “nothing” and “everything”. A new mother needs to know “nothing” in that God’s grace truly will provide. Sacramental marital graces will pull her and her spouse through many tough and dark times, with no credit to her or to him. Nothing really and truly can prepare a mother for the moment her child is first placed in her arms and she and her spouse are suddenly totally responsible for this precious little soul. Yet, parents must do “everything” they can do to raise him in the Faith and then trust that God will complete the work.
I think there is a danger in thinking that a person is “done” at 18, that a child is “raised well” (or not) by then. After all, which of us is totally complete, finally the person God calls us to be even before we hit the second decade age mark? Moving towards God and towards heaven takes an entire life’s work. In the early years, parents are critical in launching the child in this direction. Later on, the decision, responsibility and privilege will be his own. But it is a process, and we have to remember that.
That being said, what should good parents know in order to raise their children well in the Faith? And what should parents do?
What Parents Should Know
Knowing several things will help Catholic parents navigate the exciting world of raising their children well. First, parents should know that the world, generally, will not support their efforts to raise their children in the Catholic faith. That’s not being negative. It’s stating a fact, which is also nothing new. Since the time Jesus walked the earth Christian beliefs and Christians themselves have been persecuted. We need to arm ourselves with a joyful demeanor and live the Christian live fully without expecting it to be easy or to be applauded. The world will frequently contradict our desires to be modest, chaste, kind, generous, patient, temperate, and holy. We must be modest, chaste, kind, generous, patient, temperate and holy anyway. The world will tell us to pursue materialism, earthly goods, fame, power, “success”. We must reject that and reach for higher goals, and teach our children to do the same. We have to expect to be revolutionaries, of sorts, radically living in peace, for Christ. And remember, revolutionaries don’t necessarily have support groups.
Yes, there may be pockets here and there of support, of like-minded people who are striving to raise their children the way that we are, and finding these folks will be blessed relief and consolation, like cold water is to a thirsty soul. Indeed, we should seek out like-minded parents to network and brainstorm with them, but we must not expect to rely on them in all cases, at all times. God alone will be our perfect strength as we seek to do His will, well, in our families.
Second, parents should also know that children learn far more from example than preaching or formal lessons. The best way we can raise good Catholic children is to be good Catholic people ourselves. Children learn temperance by seeing us model that. They learn kindness of speech by seeing that exemplified in us. They learn to love the Mass and sacraments when we love the Mass and sacraments and bring them with us to experience them. We don’t need to preach to the children the importance of praying the rosary, although sharing stories and the Church’s guidance in this regard is good. We need to give them little plastic rosaries when they are just toddlers and snuggle with them on our laps as we recite the mysteries and pray this prayer ourselves. Our Catholic faith must be totally and entirely integrated in our lives, both for our own good and so our children can absorb it.
Third, parents should know that perseverance is essential because suffering often comes with the territory of raising children. This can be difficult to understand when one in the midst of it, especially at the beginning. We might initially address child-raising like we have other ‘projects’- We make a plan. We give our best efforts. We expect immediate positive results because we have tried so hard and done our research. Yet, raising good Catholic children is not like any other “project”. It takes more time, more faith, more trust than anything else we have ever done. Sometimes situations arise in child-rearing that challenge us to the very core of ourselves and elicit suffering, sometimes great suffering. This is perfectly normal. You see, God molds us as we mold our children. These are “growing pains”, of sorts. The growth toward holiness , in fact should, be a family endeavor. If we stay close to Him we have nothing to fear and are assured of “success”, in His time, in His way.
One day when I was at Mass, I suddenly and surely felt that a distinct part of the vocation of mothers is to suffer for their children. I sincerely believe that when we unite our daily sufferings to those of Jesus on the cross, our suffering can be redemptive. Our children may be buoyed by our generosity and spirit of acceptance when they would otherwise be tempted to falter just by our offering our sufferings for them. The more children we have the more prayers we ought to be offering, and the more willing we ought to be to accept life’s little and big crosses for them. Our children’s eternal salvation may depend on it. I can’t help but think of good St. Monica who followed her selfish and sinful son to Rome, and then to Milan, literally hounding him with prayers. It is said that a bishop once said to a distraught Monica, “Surely a son of so many tears and prayers will not be lost.” And we all know the outcome of that story- St. Monica became a great saint, as did her son St. Augustine, who was also named a Doctor of the Church. . We would all do well to emulate the example of Saint Monica and be relentless prayer warriors for our children.
What Parents Should Do
There is no formula for raising good Catholic children into good Catholic adults, but we can utilize a strategy that many parents have discovered and which really isn’t that complicated. It is best remembered by thinking of the seven Rs: Receive, Read, Remember, Remain, Rely, Rejoice, Relax.
–Receive the sacraments soon and frequently. This cannot be emphasized enough. Baptize babies immediately. If Aunt Martha can’t make it for two months to see the baby, go ahead and throw the baptismal party when it’s convenient for her, but don’t postpone the sacrament to fit her or anyone’s schedule. It is most important that the child receive his baptism as soon as possible after birth. It is less important that mom is up for visitors, and more important that the baby enter the Church. On a similar note, make a family confession date every single month. Some families like to go out for ice cream afterwards or plan another little treat. The sacrament of confession is critical for the spiritual growth of everyone. We wouldn’t dream of going months without showering, which cleanses our bodies, so why should we consider going more than a month without Confession, which cleanses our souls? Last, we should take the children to Mass more than once a week on Sunday. An entire book can be written why, but suffice it to say here they will grow spiritually, learn how to better behave and we mothers will reap benefits as well.
–Read to your child. Start with simple toddler bible stories when they are small, then move on to other Catholic board books and short stories which teach the Faith in simple terms. Incorporate these into evening story time. As your child grows older, add the “real” bible, the catechism, enriching words from all sources. Take the time to teach your children simple apologetics. The complexity of the apologetics books chosen can grow with your child’s age and wisdom. Snuggling on the sofa with a good book and your child can be bonding like few things are, and will help your child grow in Faith if you choose the right reading.
–Remember that you are not alone. Your spouse is your partner in raising your child in the Faith. Daddies offer perspectives and wisdom that mommies can’t, simply because they are men and we are not. Be a team player and be open to your spouse’s ideas and suggestions.
–Remain steadfast. Endure. My husband is a golfer. He relates to life on a sport’s level. He recently put it this way: “I can control my swing and mindset on the golf course, but not the weather. It may rain. The wind may blow. I can’t control that. But I tee up the ball with the proper mindset and orchestrate the mechanics of my swing the best I can. I think positively and keep moving forward.” Life is not a game of golf, but the idea of controlling what we can and trusting the rest to God is a good plan.
–Rely on God’s good graces. Trust Him.
–Rejoice. Be thankful. Enjoy each moment, each stage and yes, each challenge. As we strive to raise our children well we will see personal growth too. God is so good.
–Relax. Give yourself a break when you need one, and find ways to spiritually re-charge. Attend a bible study at your parish alone, take time for personal prayer, or meet a like-minded friend for lunch and exchange of ideas. Try hard but don’t expect perfection right off the bat. If you falter, forgive yourself and get up and try again. Remember a fool sits enjoying a mud puddle, but an equal fool may recognize his situation yet sits and laments his fate in the puddle without trying to get out. A wise person recognizes when she is deep “in the mud”, gets up, wipes herself off (Confession) and tries again, careful to avoid the puddle the next time. An eighth “R” might also be to recognize that “success” is not measured by external cues alone. God works in mysterious ways in the deep recesses of the human soul. He is working on our children as He is working on us.
Prayer of Parents for Their Children
O Good God, we thank Thee, that Thou hast given us children, made them heirs of heaven by holy Baptism, and entrusted to us their training. Penetrate us with a sense of our responsibility; assist us in the care of their health, but especially in the preservation of their innocence and purity of heart. Grant that we may teach them early to know and serve Thee, and to love Thee, with their whole heart. Grant that we ourselves may carefully avoid all that we must forbid them, and may assiduously practice all that we should teach them. We commend them, O God to Thy paternal care and to the guardianship of Thy holy angels. Bless our efforts, O heavenly Father, and let our children develop to Thy honor and persevere in virtue till the end! Amen
From Handbook for Parents by Father Paul Wickens, (Neumann Press)
Same boys with me last fall at ages 24 and 23
** Article first appeared on Integrated Catholic Life. See more quality articles about integrating your life and faith HERE. **
Conveying the right idea is all in the word selection isn’t it? Here are a few comments homeschooling moms might hear from their husbands, and a little advice to dads as to how to “improve” their words. This is written tongue-in-cheek of course, with a little bit of truth thrown in ….. If even one of these makes you smile it will make me happy-
Upon walking through the door after work and seeing an erupting volcano on the kitchen cupboard a husband:
MIGHT BE TEMPTED TO SAY: “Well, that doesn’t look like dinner.”
BETTER CHOICE: “Wow, a volcano. Cool. Hey, who wants to help me with dinner?”
BEST CHOICE: “Awesome project, guys! Your mom really outdid herself on this one. Let’s go to the library to get a video on volcanoes then we’ll take your teacher out to dinner!”
Upon stepping over Legos in the shape of DNA a husband:
MIGHT BE TEMPTED TO SAY: “This house is a mess. You know, somebody’s going to trip.”
BETTER CHOICE: “Hey! I found some DNA. Ha ha. Get me the box and I’ll put it away!”
BEST CHOICE: (Turning to wife) “You think of the best projects for our kids and I’m sure you could use some cleaning help. Let’s get a weekly cleaning service so you can concentrate on the kids’ education!”
A husband and wife’s eyes meet after a long day. A husband:
MIGHT BE TEMPTED TO SAY: “You know, you’d look so pretty with a little make up”
BETTER CHOICE: (Handing his wife a tube of rose colored lipstick) “I saw this in the drugstore. It reminded me of your pretty lips and I remembered you like this shade.”
BEST CHOICE: “I love seeing your face in the candlelight. Let’s go out for dinner.”
A husband is quizzing his child on the state capitals. The husband:
MIGHT BE TEMPTED TO SAY: “Honey, he missed one! He missed Delaware!”
BETTER CHOICE: (turning to child) “You got 49 out of 50. Good job! We won’t tell Mom you missed Delaware. You’ll get it next time.”
BEST CHOICE: “Delaware, Schmelaware. Who cares? It’s a small state. Let’s take Mom out to dinner!”
On Saturday morning, a husband:
MIGHT BE TEMPTED TO SAY: (rushing out the door) “My tee time’s at 8. I’ll see you sometime late this afternoon!”
BETTER CHOICE: “Okay.” (sigh) “Where’s the list?”
BEST CHOICE: “Honey, I’m going to clean out the garage, mow the lawn and take care of the miscellaneous fix up projects you wanted me to do. I’ll keep the little ones with me. Why don’t you go work on lesson plans or take a little break today? We can switch next weekend.”
Looking at a computer generated library print-out left on the cupboard, a husband:
MIGHT BE TEMPTED TO SAY: “32 books!? How can you have fines on 32 books? Who even reads 32 books?”
BETTER CHOICE: “Well, at least the kids are learning something.”
BEST CHOICE: “You actually saved us money! Do you know how much it would cost to BUY 32 books? I’m so glad the kids are reading so much!”
At 10 PM a husband:
MIGHT BE TEMPTED TO SAY: “Goodnight.”
BETTER CHOICE: “Wow, you’re so diligent, staying up to go over the kids’ worksheets. Atta girl! I’ll make some popcorn!”
BEST CHOICE: “Scoot over. I’ll help you grade.”
Sunday morning before Mass a husband:
MIGHT BE TEMPTED TO SAY: “I’ll be in the car. Bring the kids when you’re ready.”
BETTER CHOICE: “If you want me to dress them, show me what you want them to wear.”
BEST CHOICE: “I’ve got the church books and the diaper bag, and the kids are in the car. I know you just were able to change only a minute ago. No rush- Come out when you’re ready.”
At ‘that time of the month’ a husband:
MIGHT BE TEMPTED TO SAY: “Didn’t you already have chocolate this morning?”
BETTER CHOICE: Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
BEST CHOICE: “I’ll get you those Hershey Kisses stashed behind the bread, and hey, you look great in those sweatpants!”
At an ordinary meal a husband:
MIGHT BE TEMPTED TO SAY: “Meatloaf, vegetables and a fruit bowl … again?”
BETTER CHOICE: “Hmmmm. A balanced, nutritious meal.”
BEST CHOICE: “Wow, you are amazingly creative with our meals considering the modest allowance you have for groceries and the fact you have little time because you do such a great job homeschooling our children. And I love the fresh flowers on the table. Nice touch!”
After receiving standardized test results of the kids, a husband:
MIGHT BE TEMPTED TO SAY: “Well, I should hope they’d do well!”
BETTER CHOICE: “Good job!”
BEST CHOICE: “(turning to wife) “Honey, these are splendid. The kids did great! With a mother like you it is clear to see that the children are going to be both beautiful and brilliant!”
From Stories for the Homeschool Heart (2010) by Theresa Thomas and Patti Armstrong