Written by Rachel Spigarelli
Around the age of two I was involved in a terrible wintertime car accident with my family that included lots of sliding, crashing, and broken glass. With a bone-deep gash splitting the center of my forehead, I was rushed in the ambulance to the hospital. Thankfully, I healed quickly and without complications, but the deep and lasting scar remains. This was in the pre-Harry Potter days, and my scar wasn’t viewed as magical; rather, it became the object of Frankenstein-type teasing.
My dad suggested that perhaps a captivating, creative story about the origin of the scar would curb some of the mockery. So, as a family, we set about to weave a narrative that would be so fantastic and mesmerizing my assailants would forget about teasing me at all. We were in the car, moving from Colorado to Utah, and near the state line we put it all together: “Just as we crossed the border into Utah, our family had been attacked by Indians, yeah, and we had needed someone to save us, yeah, and when I hopped out of the car, willing to fight for our family, I had received a Tomahawk in the middle of my forehead. Amazingly, I simply pulled it out of my head and kept fighting.” We laughed together and enjoyed the collaboration. Nearly 20 years later, I still love to tell that story we made up. Our family knows that stories like this improve our friendship and make us feel like a powerful unit.
Storytelling Isn’t Just For the Dinner Table
Like you, my family talks and jokes about our day while we enjoy our meals. At dinner time we recap and relive the events of the day as we describe them together. These stories may have more power than we realize.
In his book, “The Healing Power of Stories,” Daniel Taylor writes a startling description of the bond that stories bring. “Families are united more by mutual stories – of love and pain and adventure – than by biology. ‘Do you remember when …’ bonds people together far more than shared chromosomes. A family knows itself to be a family through its shared stories. When we speak of being related, we are speaking of the relationship of characters in interwoven stories the family tells to us and tells about us.”
Each time I read this quote, I am surprised by the depth of connection he believes comes from stories. Did you notice it, too? “A family knows itself to be a family through its shared stories.” Stories are the I.D. card that gives us belonging. Stories are the gateway to meaningful self-image. Stories make us a group.
More than that, Taylor argues that the “stories the family tells to us and tells about us” become interwoven. These stories are the descriptions we come to believe about ourselves. To me, this means that storytelling is an important component for a healthy family.
In this article, I outline some steps you can take to allow storytelling to become a more integral part of your family life. I believe that you will be able to create success, build unity and increase faith by implementing these ideas. As a homeschooling family, you are uniquely situated to apply these ideas. You don’t have the “how did school go today?” wall to break through. You are with your children all day, synergistically creating the story as it happens.
Franchising Success Through Stories
Well-known happiness expert Shawn Achor asserts, “creating a shared narrative” is one of the three keys to success and happiness. Achor’s research is primarily focused on businesses, but it’s easy to apply his ideas at home when you understand, for starters, the meaning of a shared narrative. You are looking for a contagious message, something that will be easy to remember. Basically, you ask yourself: what is my biggest challenge right now at home? Or, what is the vision I have of my future? He suggests you need to identify one aspect of reality that would help your family harness their “drive, motivation and multiple intelligences [to] become more successful.”
Perhaps you need family members to work without complaint, or you all need to work on being quick to say, “I’m sorry.” According to Achor, you would “franchise” this success by repeating the phrase often. “In our family we work till the job is done” or, “In our family we give the benefit of the doubt.” Start with one focused phrase about one aspect of success you desire; you can add more as you feel ready. When you make comments about the success you envision, make it simple, make it positive, and make it feasible. Think: easy to repeat, easy to remember, easy to do.
Instead of a sentence with multiple agendas and a list of attributes you want to see in your family, keep it short: one item, one focus. “We are a family that makes deliberate choices.”
Instead of describing what you DON’T want to see, tell them what you DO want to see. When the idea is eliminating she’s- elbowing- me-in-the-backseat car ride style contention, you wouldn’t say “In this family we don’t fight.” Rather, “we keep our hands to ourselves.”
Instead of: “In our family we don’t ever arrive late.” The first time you are late, you might feel you aren’t successful. Try this: “Our family plans to arrive on time. If we are going to be more than five minutes late, we call ahead.”
Make it a Story!
Once you have determined the success you want to franchise, that’s where you can begin to create a shared narrative. Take that single item, and tie it to a story. This is a fluid, flexible process. You aren’t trying to write a script that will be rehearsed over and over, rather, it is the core principle you are looking to repeat.
If you are focusing on chores without complaints, you might share a true story about the day this particular child did their chores diligently and efficiently and felt great satisfaction as a result. Or, you might share a true story about you doing your chores quickly and how good you feel about it. You might even result to telling an imaginary story about an animal that swiftly and happily worked. Another strategy my dad used: make it a vocabulary lesson. “Rachel,” he would say, “I want you to do your chores with alacrity. Do you know what alacrity means?” I find that when I use stories like this, my child is distracted from wanting to protest, and becomes engaged in the narrative.
Achor’s research with the Multiple Sclerosis Society revealed that sometimes the most uplifting and encouraging stories come from the inside—from the ordinary people who face and conquer challenges each day. Perhaps your best stories will come from the “inside,” too. Do your children have a story they love to tell you? Ask them if they can think of a story about the focus you have chosen.
The important thing with a shared narrative is to have it be a demonstration of your victory. You are appealing to emotion, not reason. It doesn’t matter if the experience was positive or negative, either way it can become a victory story.
In his New York Times article, “The Stories That Bind Us,” Bruce Feiler convinces readers that, “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. That act alone may increase the odds that your family will thrive for many generations to come.”
There you have it: create, refine and retell.
Begin a Collection
Certainly our shared narratives can begin by simply expressing them out loud, unadorned, to each other. Scholars have long recognized the strength in learning that comes from simply repeating back the narrative. (see, for example The Power of Storytelling: Using Stories to Improve Literacy Learning) Parents, too, find that sharing a story aloud can help curb whining, boredom, and complaints. (see the story club at EveReadBooks.com)
There is great value in these oral statements, but there is also fragility. We are prone to forget, and prone to skew our view of the past. Begin a record. Even if you don’t have a lot of time, you can do a little bit. Shawn Achor suggests, “Take two minutes every day to write down every detail you can remember about one positive experience that occurred over the past 24 hours. As our brains can’t tell much difference between visualization and actual experience, by rehashing a high point in the day you double the effect of that positive experience.” (August 2012 Huffington Post article) Two minutes? That’s it! I can manage two minutes to remember one positive experience, and it has made a difference for me.
Memorist Patricia Hampl echoes this idea of rehashing’s power, “To write about one’s life is to live it twice, and the second living is both spiritual and historical.” Just by telling our story, and then by writing it down, it has become something else. This something else has increased meaning and impact for you, and for your family.
Start With Your Love Story
An easy place to begin is with the story that started your family. Do you recall these details often for your children? Best-selling novelist and author Jerry Jenkins suggests, “Tell your marital story. Tell it to your kids, your friends, your brothers, your sisters, but especially to each other. The more your story is implanted in your brain, the more it serves as a hedge against the myriad forces that seek to destroy your marriage. Make your story so familiar that it becomes part of the fabric of your being. It should be a legend that is shared through the generations as you grow a family tree that defies all odds and boasts marriage after marriage of stability, strength, and longevity.” His wording feels exciting to me; think of my story becoming a legend! My story lending strength to the generations to come!
John Gottman, well-known for his extensive data regarding couple marital success, shares this prediction, “I’ve found 94 percent of the time that couples who put a positive spin on their marriage’s history are likely to have a happy future as well. When happy memories are distorted, it’s a sign that the marriage needs help.”( From The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work http://amzn.com/0609805797 Start, then, with the story of your marriage. Recall the first time you held hands, or an awkward early encounter with your in-laws, or the restaurant you most enjoyed during courtship.
What if I Don’t Like My Story Right Now? What if Aspects of My Story Make Me Cringe?
Sometimes we can reframe our point-of-view and “change the script from tragedy to comedy.” Take this advice from Brene Brown, a psychologist who has studied shame resilience for decades. “Name it. Talk about it. Own your story. Tell the Story.” She also says, “owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing we will ever do.” (“The Gifts of Imperfection,” p. 44) We can’t pretend we don’t have the mistakes and the hurts that have shaped us. We are here to gain experience, and some of that experience is very unhappy. If we are confessing a private sin, or describing a personal failure, or facing a family-centered tragedy, the last thing we may want to do is talk about it. “But you need to talk about it because stories are medicine,” encourages Mark Batterson of the National Community Church in Washington D.C. in his excellent “e-votional” on the power of stories. (Human Epistles – National Community Church) The power that comes from expressing our pain to each other can begin to heal us.
Adversity Can Become the Glue
Even hard things can become a victory story. Without changing the reality of our day, we can express truths that focus on positive aspects or truths that focus on negative aspects. We choose our focus.
One simple experience I had last fall illustrates this ability to shape our own history. After a field trip, I was loading my six children in the car. Three were already secure when a large, aggressive hornet flew into the vehicle. The children in the car were very, very frightened. I had my hands full with the baby still in my arms. By quickly working as a team with those not yet buckled, we opened all the doors, and got the hornet to come out. We were so relieved. Just as we began to congratulate ourselves, the hornet got into the car a second time! We tried a similar method. Again we got him to exit. This time we were more thoughtful about waiting and watching. Each of my older children had ideas about how we could solve our problem. They were able to help the younger ones stay calm, too. That evening at dinner, when we told their dad our story we didn’t keep our comments focused on the fear and frustration. We framed it as a victory, an example of our teamwork and a demonstration of our ingenuity. We talked about how we worked together to find a solution. Though my children had been very frightened at first, talking about it in this context made them feel so much better. We were able to honestly say, “Our family makes a clever team.”
Testimonies are Shared Narratives, Too
Stories can create a memorable backdrop for teachings to be remembered. President Thomas S. Monson uses stories to express a gospel message with a memorable image. He isn’t the first prophet to do so. Many others, especially the Savior himself, engage their audience with stories.
Stories can also teach without offending. In a June 2014 New Era article about teaching with stories, author Heidi McConkie suggests, “One of the benefits of teaching with stories is that it allows people to learn as much as they are spiritually ready to understand.” She goes on to suggest four important points to remember in our spiritual stories: 1. Give specific details 2. Tailor to your audience 3. Desribe cause and effect 4. Testify of truth. We can teach our children these techniques first by analyzing stories that they find shared in Conference. Then we can help them script out stories they can have ready to help them express their testimonies.
What is the definition of our testimonies of the gospel of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Perhaps we can define them as stories of our faith shared through concrete examples of our daily lives. Moments when we felt confident that God was aware of us become stories that are part of our testimonies of the reality of God as our Father. Moments when we felt peace are stories that are now part of our testimonies of the influence of the Holy Ghost. Stories of healing solidify our testimonies of the Atonement. In the scriptures, the power of our testimonies is described. Revelation 12:11 reads, “They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony.” This tells me our testimonies, our stories, have power to help us overcome our greatest challenges.
Don’t Underestimate YOUR Story
Remember that your stories have great depth and importance. Use them to realize your success. Telling a story helps us put things in perspective and helps us learn more about ourselves. We cement our identity through the stories we share. Perhaps we have, at times, underestimated the power of our individual and family stories to heal shame and discouragement. Writing our stories down helps us remember and double the story’s positive effects. In fact, it is these stories, both positive and negative, that help us teach principles of faith and learning in a meaningful and memorable way. Stories remind. Stories involve. Stories protect. Stories change both the future and the past, because stories enliven the present.
So, what’s your story?
Rachel began her homeschooling journey in Seattle, and has now lived in Northern Virginia for three years. With six children between the ages of 14 and 3, Rachel appreciates the variety of learning levels and developmental stages within her home. Rachel looks to provide authentic learning and meaning-rich educational experiences for her children and for herself. Rachel is a passionate and enthusiastic speaker who loves to talk about the perks of homeschooling.
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