A friend of mine, the mother of eight young children, used to save money by purchasing food in large quantities. One day she set down a fifty-pound bag of flour and it broke open, scattering flour everywhere.
I don’t know whether I would have sat down and cried, asked for help, or shooed everyone away while I attempted to clean up the mess, but her response was quite different. She summoned the whole family. “Children, take off your shoes and socks. Come dance in the flour!”
My friend’s children are grown now, but I’m sure they often tell and re-tell this story. For their own sons and daughters, it is a wonderful insight into their grandmother’s fun-loving character, and a model for coping with life’s unexpected occurrences.
Christmastime, Story Time. Christmas parties, special family meals, or quiet evenings around the tree all present golden opportunities for families to retell or rediscover their own heritage of stories. As parents, we are the keepers of a treasure trove that we can share during moments like these.
When we tell stories, we’re in the best of company. Jesus was a consummate storyteller who used real-life anecdotes to present spiritual truths: “The kingdom of heaven is like… . A sower went out to sow his seed… . ” (Matthew 13:24-50; Luke 8:5). Asked a question, Jesus often responded with a story. “Who is my neighbor?” prompted the reply, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho… . ” (Luke 10:29,30). And instead of reprimanding Simon the Pharisee for judging the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, the Master told a story and queried Simon about it (Luke 7:36-47)—a very effective method for teaching and gentle correction.
For us, too, stories can work wonders. Without being preachy or dry, they convey wisdom and help our children see how God is at work in their lives.
What’s the Point? Some stories simply tickle the funny bone. For example, my aunt was so thrifty that she once made a bus driver move the bus so she could reach a penny she spotted under its wheel.
There are stories that highlight particular family characteristics. My husband is legendary for bicycling to work in all kinds of weather, and several of the children biked thirty miles with him to summer camp. Then there was the time we managed to transport our whole family of six to a picnic on a tandem bike.
Other stories illustrate how God has led us, as well as who we are as a family. We sometimes count up all the people who have lived in our home and how they came to move in with us—at least eight single people, four families, and foster children from three different sibling groups. Each arrived at our doorstep for a different reason: a college student needing a room, a family between houses, a young mom fleeing an abusive husband, a relative entering a new phase of her life, a dying woman who could no longer manage stairs. Each stretched and enriched our family life immeasurably.
Certain stories strengthen the connection between generations. It was fun for my children to learn that their dignified grandmother led a dance around the maypole at her college. As our children have become engaged, we’ve told the story of our own courtship and that of their grandparents. Instead of trying to plan their weddings for them, we’ve shared about the kind of ceremony and celebration we chose.
Virtues and Insights. Other stories illustrate virtues we’d like our children to emulate. My husband was competent and trustworthy enough to begin working in the family restaurant and variety store when he was nine, even though one customer walked out upon learning he planned to grill the hamburger himself. My mother-in-law, who worked for a Princeton astronomy professor, remembered Albert Einstein not for his brilliance but for the kindness with which he escorted his wife across the street.
Still other stories illustrate how family members have overcome adversity or corrected mistakes. My junior high son was suspended from school for loosening the screws that held desks together. Junior year, during a conference with his teachers, he suddenly woke up and realized that a little extra effort could move him from an adequate to an excellent student. A very crotchety neighbor we misjudged and avoided was found on the floor one day by the mailman. Medical treatment to correct a chemical imbalance changed her into a friendly, docile person who looked forward to our visits.
Sometimes we hesitate to share our own faith journey with our children—perhaps because they know how far we still have to go on the road to sainthood. But stories of this kind can provide children with new insights into both their faith and their parents.
My husband and I realized this after our family attended a prayer meeting at which we recounted how each of us came to know the Lord anew many years ago, and how this changed our lives. We told about the hunger in our hearts as each of us traveled to live in the city where we were to meet God and each other, about how I blubbered through my first prayer meeting without benefit of a handkerchief, about how Scripture came alive for John. It was an eye-opener for our children, who told us afterwards that they had never heard many of these stories about the things that are so central to who we are and how we live.
Unfinished Stories. Telling stories can strengthen our identity as a family, teach moral lessons, and help us trace the way God has led us. It can also break down barriers that separate us from others.
Knowing what it was like during the Depression or World War II can help us understand Grandpa’s penny-pinching or reluctance to express affection. As we have brought foster children into our home, we invite them to share family stories. How does your family celebrate Christmas? What’s the best vacation you can remember? Who taught you to ride a bicycle? This helps us understand them and helps them feel more at home with us.
Finally, as we reflect on what we’ve heard from our own parents and grandparents, we become more attentive to what God is doing in us and our families—to the stories the Holy Spirit is unfolding in the lives of our children. Each of our lives is an unfinished story that we are crafting in collaboration with our Creator. As we share stories from earlier in the journey, we can come to a clearer understanding of where we have come from, who we are, and who God is calling us to be.
Take advantage of significant events. Special occasions or changes are wonderful opportunities for sharing stories. When we get a new pet, I talk about the Seeing Eye puppy I raised as a 4-H project and about the chicken who died after my brother poured hot water on it. Being bullied, losing a loved one, and facing down a fear are universal human experiences that can elicit stories. “I still remember how I felt when …”Pass It On
Seek out older relatives. How often people regret the stories they didn’t elicit from relatives before they died! With this in mind, whenever we go visiting, we can encourage our children to be detectives. On the way, we can brainstorm about things we’d like to know. How did they meet each other? What was it like being an immigrant? Where were they when they heard that John F. Kennedy had been shot? How did they feel about the changes in the church after Vatican II? A tape recorder, video camera, or a large notepad can help us record this precious oral history.
Make a story box. Some families encourage storytelling at the dinner table by writing out questions on slips of paper and putting them into a box. Who taught you to pray the rosary? What was your most embarrassing moment? What’s your favorite food, and when was the first time you ate it? From personal experience, how do you know God loves you? What’s your favorite Bible story and why? When conversation lags, you can invite someone to draw a slip and tell a story that answers the question.
Put words to pictures. Photo albums, scrapbooks, and mementos can also prompt storytelling. We love to pull out the photo of Grammie on a motorcycle after our wedding rehearsal dinner picnic. We explain that she felt comfortable doing that at age sixty-nine because Grandpa used to be a motorcycle policeman.
Call on your senses. Sensory connections can be made to favorite songs and recipes. I associate a certain kind of candy with family friends who lived near New York’s Central Park. I treasure a tape recording of my dad singing “I Went to the Animal Fair.” One grandma’s recipe for apple cake and the other’s for tomato soup cake come with stories of special occasions when those desserts were served.
Jill A. Boughton lives in South Bend, Indiana.