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The Psychological Benefits To Hearing Family Stories This Thanksgiving


Kids are always listening, even when they seem distracted by their cellphones or their iPads. So why not take advantage this holiday season and tell and retell the classic family stories shared around the table? They matter. Sue Shellenbarger shares research that backs up this idea in her recent column "The Secret Benefits Of Retelling Family Stories." She's a columnist for The Wall Street Journal and joins us now.


SUE SHELLENBARGER: Thank you, Ailsa.

CHANG: So you write that research shows kids absorb a lot more information from family stories than most adults assume. Tell us what these studies found.

SHELLENBARGER: At Emory University's Institute for Liberal Arts, researchers have taken a really deep look at what kids remember from family stories. And a surprisingly large number - about 90% of teenagers and young adults - can remember a family story when asked, even if they seemed uninterested or...

CHANG: (Laughter).

SHELLENBARGER: ...Riveted to their phones when the stories were told. So surprisingly, they do really listen.

CHANG: And what are the psychological benefits of retaining all these family stories?

SHELLENBARGER: Parents may be surprised to learn that their children actually acquire a sense of identity from hearing family stories. They learn about their past, people who came before them. If parents describe their emotions when they tell stories, the kids learn about regulating their own emotions and giving them names. And the examples in the stories can even service antidotes for some of the pressures kids face today that - they can see that, well, maybe it's OK to take risks, or, you know, Uncle Henry really screwed up once, and he came out OK.

CHANG: (Laughter).



CHANG: That's so interesting because when I was growing up, my mom used to talk about how hard she always studied and what a superstar student she was. And I would think about her when I was studying for math tests and spelling tests 'cause I wanted to be her growing up. And I did well in school, so I guess she got some benefit out of that.

SHELLENBARGER: It's humbling, in a way, when you realize as an adult how much youngsters are listening to you.

CHANG: So I know that you took this research, and you presented it to a bunch of parents and kids. How did they see these results play out in their own lives?

SHELLENBARGER: Some kids were really inspired by their ancestors' stories. One woman said that her mother, who had really suffered from a lot of personal problems and worked as a seamstress and became divorced - she really found a new career by going to college and becoming a social worker at age 60.

CHANG: Oh, wow.

SHELLENBARGER: And some of the best years of her life were working from age 60 to 78 as a social worker.

CHANG: That's so great.

SHELLENBARGER: And this woman took inspiration from that in her own life and really rejuvenated her career in her 50s and became a college instructor at that time. And she thinks her students benefit even from hearing these stories - don't be too stressed out if your career trajectory isn't a straight shot.

CHANG: So as you were reflecting on each of these stories that stood out to you in your reporting, could you kind of sum up what makes a particularly impactful story on children?

SHELLENBARGER: The story, if told over a holiday table, which is what we're approaching, should be entertaining.

CHANG: (Laughter) Yeah.

SHELLENBARGER: I think you have, as a parent, to think ahead a little bit. It's sometimes easier to tell a story over the Thanksgiving dinner table than it is on Wednesday at, you know, 10 a.m. And I think that it helps to maybe think through, what's the point of this story? One of my favorite stories I found in reporting this column - about a young man from Massachusetts who heard about how his grandfather, instead of going to college on the day his parents showed up at his boarding school to drive him there, jumped out a second-floor window, grabbed his bags and took off for Chicago and lived on his own for a year.

CHANG: (Laughter) Oh, my God.

SHELLENBARGER: He wasn't having it. And he came back after a year and went through college and did just fine. But this young man remembered that story at a critical time in his life, and it motivated him to take risks and to assume maybe things would work out OK after all. The point of that is there should be a value, a sense of purpose that a child can remember and will resonate with that child when making a decision on their own in the future.

CHANG: What about you when your family sits down for Thanksgiving dinner? What kind of stories have you told your kids?

SHELLENBARGER: One thing I told my children was that I was not a particularly good student in college or even in grad school but that I set out to work harder, as hard as I could, and that that actually eventually got me places. I persisted and maybe outlasted some people competing for the same jobs.

CHANG: You worked harder because you felt like you had to overcome an academic record you weren't that proud of.

SHELLENBARGER: That's exactly right. And I think my kids took from that that you learn partly by doing. You get out in the workplace. You apply yourself 100%. And over time, you will get the skills you need and not to be too discouraged if you don't get a perfect score...

CHANG: Yeah.

SHELLENBARGER: ...On your college entrance exam or a great grade in college. And I think that really encouraged my children, particularly my son, who took that to heart.

CHANG: So, obviously, we're talking about family stories here. Sometimes, they get told so much over the generations, nobody thinks to actually fact-check any of these stories, at least I never have tried.


CHANG: Does that even matter in terms of the way they impact the listeners - whether these stories are true?

SHELLENBARGER: One of the longest time researchers on this topic, Robyn Fivush at Emory University, laughed when I asked her the same question. She said, these stories can evolve over time as we take different meaning from them. And I know my own stories evolved as I told them to my children. I emphasized different things as I gained in maturity and wisdom. And that's part of the benefit. Yes, it should be true. It should mean what you intend it to mean, but the details may change over time. Our memories aren't perfect.

CHANG: Right.

SHELLENBARGER: And so I think it's important to realize as your children grow up, they will take new meaning from the stories, just as you take new meaning from them as you mature and gain in wisdom.

CHANG: I love that. Sue Shellenbarger writes The Wall Street Journal's Work & Family column.

Thank you so much for joining us this holiday week.

SHELLENBARGER: It's been my pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE XX SONG, "VCR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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