Sunday, March 29, 2009

Children Find Meaning in Old Family Tales

Many of you may know that I administrate a writing group on Yahoo. Recently, one of its members sent me an article from the Wall Street Journal (March 11, 2009, page D1) entitled: Life Stories: Children Find Meaning in Old Family Tales by Sue Shellenbarger.

As this article clearly supports my opinion on the value of sharing family stories, with permission from the author, it is reprinted here.

MARCH 11, 2009, 3:36 A.M. ET
Life Stories: Children Find Meaning in Old Family Tales
By Sue Shellenbarger

When C. Stephen Guyer's three children were growing up, he told them stories about how his grandfather, a banker, lost all in the 1930s, but didn't lose sight of what he valued most. In one of the darkest times, Mr. Guyer says, when his grandfather was nearly broke, he loaded his family into the car and took them to see family members in Canada. The message: "There are more important things in life than money," says Mr. Guyer, of Littleton, Colo.

The tale took on new relevance recently, when Mr. Guyer downsized to a small house from a more luxurious one. He was worried that his children, a daughter, 15, and twins, 22, would be upset. To his surprise, they weren't. Instead, their reaction echoed their great-grandfather's. "What they care about," Mr. Guyer says his children told him, "is how warm are the people in the house, how much of their heart is accessible."

As parents cut budgets, many are finding family stories have surprising power to help children through hard times. Storytelling experts say the phenomenon reflects a growing national interest in telling tales, evidenced by a rise in storytelling events and festivals. New research bears out the value of family stories, linking teens' knowledge of them to better behavior and mental health.

An Emory University study of 65 families with children ages 14 to 16 found kids' ability to retell parents' stories was linked to a lower rate of depression and anxiety and less acting-out of frustration or anger, says Robyn Fivush, a psychology professor. Knowing family stories "helps children put their own experience in perspective," Dr. Fivush says.

The trick is telling the stories in a way children can hear. We're not talking here about the kind of story that begins, "When I was a kid, I walked to school every day uphill both ways, barefoot in the snow." Instead, choose a story suited to your child's needs, and make eye contact to create "a personal experience," says Sherry Norfolk, chairman of the National Storytelling Network, a Jonesborough, Tenn., nonprofit. "You don't have to tell children what they should take from the story," she says. "They can intuitively understand what the moral is."

When Carla Freeman's daughter became anxious a few years ago about having to change schools, the Atlanta mother related her own childhood stories of switching to another school in her community. Her old friends dropped her and, at her new school, "I was kind of an oddball" at first, she told her daughter. But Ms. Freeman bounced back and made new friends. She credits the stories with helping her daughter, now 12, develop resiliency and the ability to "hold herself together" against challenges.

A touch of humor helps. At Scott Prengle's Dallas home, his son Bobby, 17, has heard tales about his grandfather growing up in times so hard that his hungry schoolmates would devour apple cores left over from his lunch. As Bobby tapped a nearly empty salad-dressing bottle over his salad at dinner one evening, Scott laughed and invited him to do as his grandfather did: Put water in the bottle and shake it up, to use every last drop. Scott says his father's frugal habits "drove us crazy, but the idea was that nothing went to waste."

While Bobby declined to water down his dressing, he says of his grandfather that "I follow in his footsteps" in other ways, saving paper clips and rubber bands. And when Scott recently trimmed the family budget, he thought he saw an echo of his late father in Bobby, in the way he calmly accepted the loss of his oft-used gym membership.

Even when you think your children aren't listening to your stories, Dr. Fivush says, they probably are. Thomas Pontes thought his children, 12, 14 and 16, shrugged off tales of his grandfather, an immigrant farmhand who worked his way up from living in a barn to owning a home. To Mr. Pontes, of Providence, R.I., the story shows "the kind of optimism you need to pick yourself up from a field somewhere tending cattle" to cross the Atlantic, fueled solely by hope.

But when I asked his daughter Katie, 16, about the stories, she not only remembered them, but said they've "helped me become more appreciative of my life and how easy things are for me." Even if kids don't seem to appreciate family stories, she says, in time they'll "realize just how important they are."

Ms. Shellenbarger, resident of Portland Oregon area, is the creator and writer of The Wall Street Journal’s “Work & Family” column for which she has received several awards. (See:

Thank you Ms. Shellenbarger.

Emily Aulicino
Portland, Oregon
©29 March 2009

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Making History by Kim Pearson

Making History: How to remember, record, interpret, and share the events of your life by Kim Pearson, Primary Sources Books, an imprint of Wyatt-MacKenzie, Issaquah, WA ( ISBN: 978-1-032279-75-7. Copyright 2007. $24.95.

I do not usually review books, but when Kim sent me a copy, when several from my writing classes were interested in it, and as her idea of writing is similar to mine, I decided to mention it in my blog.

Many books have been written on the topic of writing one’s memoir. Formerly, there were the books for grandparents which asked basic questions about their lives, then came the books with the one-line topics. The latest generation of memoir writing books encompasses the reasons for writing, various topics, and suggested leads for those topics. Ms. Pearson’s book falls within the latter.

The book begins with excerpts from her writing class and from her own experiences. Although the book may start out a bit slow for some of us who have been involved in teaching such classes, there are many interesting stories which could give the reader ideas and activate the reader’s memories.

Making History is divided into sections: Why Tell Your Stories?, How to Tell Your Stories, and How Your Stories Fit into History with several chapters for each. She explains why she wrote the book and offers her sources (mostly Web sources) and some suggested reading.

Most of us understand that writing is therapeutic, although many genealogists wish to embellish their research by going beyond the dates and places of their ancestors. Many of us write to record those family stories and childhood memories for the future generations. Ms. Pearson gives ideas on how to deal with too much information as all of us have too little time to write all we really know about our lives and those of our ancestors.

From that point, Ms. Pearson divides her book into various sections (Economics & Politics, The Social Fabric, Wars & the International Scene, Technology & Science, Crime & Disaster, Arts & Entertainment, Lifestyle Activities, and The Weird, Trivial & Hard-to-Classify) and offers a detailed timeline for each period. Timelines start in 1930 and most end in 1989 with a few ending earlier. However, the best part of her book ends each of those chapters with ideas on which people can write. Usually there are about a dozen paragraphs for each chapter like the following.

“Scan the events timelines. What sparks a memory? Is there an event listed that makes you think, ‘oh yea, I remember that’? If so, write about this event. How did you learn about it? Di you talk about it? With whom? Were you inspired to do something because of this event? Did this event change your life in any way? Change your thinking?” (p. 119)

All though the timelines are extensive, they are not, of course, all encompassing. Many of these events were probably overlooked in most of our lives, but one never knows what statement will trigger a memory. You can supplement these timelines by using the Internet, if needed.

I suggest using this book as a workbook; that is, one needs to mark it up, underlining and starring important topics and ideas as the book is read. Use post-it notes so you can return to relevant topics and suggestions.

I am pleased to see this quality of book for writing one’s memories, especially as I have used similar techniques in teaching students and know them to work. I have applied the same method of including detailed prompts in my own publication (See the icon on this blog at the right.) and would encourage any of you not to purchase any book on writing prompts unless there is more detail for each topic than just a line or two.

Emily Aulicino
© Mar 2009