Monday, March 25, 2013

Tell Me a Story: A Mommyland Challenge

You guys may not know this about me, but I've read half the parenting books in my local library. I'm constantly reading articles and blogs and trying to gather as many tips as a I can. Because I love my kids and I'm not a natural at this mothering thing and I don't want to ruin them or mess them up because they were perfect when I got them.

Anyway, I've been reading a lot about this book "The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More" I'm just about to dive into it myself. My mom brought me an article about some of the book's big take-aways from the New York Times recently (it's right here) and I got really excited about it.

The gist of the article is that our kids need to know all of our family stories. That knowing those stories helps them to feel like they're a part of something bigger than themselves and that, in turn, makes them stronger, more connected, and more resilient people.

"The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative... They developed a measure called the “Do You Know?” scale that asked children to answer 20 questions. 
Examples included: Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know where your parents met? Do you know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of your birth?
The “Do You Know?” scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness. “We were blown away,” Dr. Duke said."
((For big social science nerds like me, the peer-reviewed article can be found here.)) 
Click thru to Amazon here.

I am so intrigued by this. It's Spring Break week here and we have NOTHING to do. Nothing planned. No projects or trips. Until I read this. It all makes such perfect sense to me. Knowing where I fit (or never quite fit) into my family's extended, multi-generational narrative always clicked everything into context for me, especially as a teenager and young adult. It was so important to know all that stuff and I think as a parent - I haven't been doing it. I haven't been telling my kids those stories. 

The crazy part is that my kids are DYING to hear them. They really, really want to know. Remember when Kate wrote that amazing post describing telling each of her kids about when they born? (It's right here and it might be the best Mommyland post ever, but grab a Kleenex because it will make you cry so hard you look like Garfield). 

My kids want to hear these stories and I want to tell them, but up until now it hasn't been a priority for me. Not anymore! For our Spring Break, my husband and I are going to tell our kids all our family stories (well maybe not ALL our family stories). I'm going to enlist my mom, my dad, my mother-in-law and my grandmother, too. If you know my dad - that's pretty risky as his stories will undoubtedly include Joseph Stalin and attractive women he has known.

Here's my challenge to you - why not do the same? It's free! It's supposed to make our kids stronger, more resilient people! What could it hurt, right? If you're not sure where to start, I dug up the 20 yes or no questions on the "Do You Know" scale used by the researchers at Emory (via Huffington Post) - see below.

Let's tell our kids these stories. Let's see how they process it. Let's see what they remember and what they forget. Let's wait a while, and have them tell the stories back to us. Let's ask the little ones to draw pictures of stuff they heard about. Then, if you feel like it's been a cool experience (or a bad one) or there's something interesting that came of it - leave a comment here or send me an email at 

Is this too weird? We've never done anything like this before. But it just feels right, so what the hey? 

xoxo, Lydia


The 20 Questions on the Do You Know scale.
1. Do you know how your parents met?
2. Do you know where your mother grew up?
3. Do you know where your father grew up?
4. Do you know where some of your grandparents grew up?
5. Do you know where some of your grandparents met?
6. Do you know where your parents were married?
7. Do you know what went on when you were being born?
8. Do you know the source of your name?
9. Do you know some things about what happened when your brothers or sisters were being born?
10. Do you know which person in your family you look most like?
11. Do you know which person in the family you act most like?
12. Do you know some of the illnesses and injuries that your parents experienced when they were younger?
13. Do you know some of the lessons that your parents learned from good or bad experiences?
14. Do you know some things that happened to your mom or dad when they were in school?
15. Do you know the national background of your family (such as English, German, Russian, etc)?
16. Do you know some of the jobs that your parents had when they were young?
17. Do you know some awards that your parents received when they were young?
18. Do you know the names of the schools that your mom went to?
19. Do you know the names of the schools that your dad went to?
20. Do you know about a relative whose face "froze" in a grumpy position because he or she did not smile enough?

(c)Herding Turtles 2009 - 2013


  1. I really really really do not want to rain on your parade. It's really a lovely parade and I never like my parade being rained on. So do not read this as a criticism of this idea or you or Mommyland (because I like it here an awful lot!).
    The fact is, I have a son that I adopted at age 10. He's 12 now. I'm sorry to every other mom out there, but my kid is pretty much the most amazing kid in the whole world. ;) Adoption is hard hard HARD, but it's so worth the hard! (anyone trudging through the trenches of the new normal/the never ending adjustment period after adoption, HANG IN THERE! The sun comes out after the rain! It will get better. I can't tell you how much better, every kid is different, but things will improve. Keep on keepin' on!)
    At this point, in most ways we are like all families. It's easier to move mountains than get my kids out the door in the morning, we tend to be short on time and I tend to run out of patience, etc. But like all families we stick together and we try to love out loud.
    It's no one's fault, but when your family is formed via adoption, you're just always a little bit different. It wasn't really fair that my son had to make a timeline of his life (with pictures! Which don't exist! Whuck?!) for a school project. And it's not fair that there are no answers to some of these questions for my son. Life isn't about fair, but I wish sometimes it was a little more fair for my son.
    I'm not trying to make a huge statement, just that this project in its entirety won't work for families like mine (adoption, blended families, etc.) and that's ok. I see the value in it. There are certainly parts that we have answers to. The fun part is that just like your kids are dying to know these stories, my son gets a huge kick out of hearing about when his dad and I were dating, or what middle school was like for us, compared to what his experience is.
    I truly hope this is a great bonding experience for the families that choose to participate.

    1. OH MY GOD. Yes. You're right. Of course, I hadn't considered any of that. I am so, so sorry if this idea seemed insensitive to families that were formed through adoption.

      But just for the record, I'm part of a blended family (both of my parents have been married 3 times) and these stories, including the ones about family to which I'm not "genetically" related are incredibly important to me. In part because they help me make sense of the people in my family, even if those stories don't directly have anything to do with me. They also help me feel part of it all, just by knowing. I got to know my step-mother better from hearing her family stories. Now that she's gone, I can tell those tsories to her kids and now her grandkids and we can all feel close to her.

      I also learned some important stuff that did affect me, like how her parents' hesitance to accept me really didn't have anything to do with ME. Knowing the stories behind their lives helped make me more accepting and provided understanding when I needed it. Does any of that make sense?

      I don't know, maybe you can't tell your son HIS stories and that totally sucks. He deserves all the good and bad stories and happy and sad ones. But maybe by hearing yours, he can get to know you and the rest of your family in a new way.

      Please rock on with your bad self and thank you so much for posting this thoughtful, awesome comment. I want to hug you and throw a leg up.

      xoxo, JM

    2. Well, I think for adopted and blended families it would need to be tweaked.

      I think, Lisa, and I don't know how your son would respond to it, but you could use it as a chance to create a "new start." Again, he's your son and you know him best, but he could have gone witty/sarcastic on the timeline with a picture of a unicorn as in that's where he came from.

      But I think that since you're his family now, he should now how you and his dad met. You just have to reword the question to "Do you want to hear how I met your dad?"

    3. It seems like most of the questions would still apply. That's the beauty of adoption: now you and your husband are his parents and your extended families are his extended family. No, you may not have the stories about the family he was born into, but don't let that discourage you from telling him all the stories of his new family. You can't tell him about his birth, but you can tell him the story of what led you to adoption and the process of adopting him. He may not look like anyone in the family, but a lot of behaviour and habits are learned from those we are around the most so you might be able to answer that question. My guess is that your son would enjoy hearing about your ancestry as well as your husbands because it's part of his story now as well. If he is interested in knowing more about his own biological ancestry, you might check out the DNA Ancestry Project( Even with the source of his name- you might not know the source but he might enjoy learning what it means in different languages.

    4. You have stories, just different stories. The stories of your child's adoption would replace the birth stories. It seems to me that an adoption is a re-birth. You are his parents so why NOT tell him how his "new" mother and father met? Same for the grandparents. If you don't know his biological heritage just skip that part. Or make something up together. Have fun with it.

    5. We were licensed foster parents for a time and this was actually something they covered in the training classes we attended in the licensure process. It's true - every kid wants a narrative of where they come from. For some kids, unfortunately, it's an ugly one or there isn't a lot that is known. But my biggest takeaway was that when these kids are in your home, they're a part of YOUR narrative.

      I realize adoption is different than foster care, and I think you hit on it at the end - your son still gets a kick out of hearing about YOUR stories. (How you and your husband met, what middle school was like.) And he'll get a kick out of hearing about what life was like for your parents and grandparents. While you may not be able to connect him to HIS genetic heritage as well as you'd like, you'll be able to connect him to yours. It's that connection that I think is the key to the whole project.

      Rock on Lisa! Adoption and foster care may still be in the cards for us one day. It's a tough road, and I still want to hug every one who has traveled it.

    6. Lisa...
      I am adopted too and so is my brother. I have always always known so much about the history of my adopted family and sometimes I'm shocked when, even as an adult, I will ask a close friend, where did your mother grow up? Or "how did your parents meet?" And they say they don't know. Maybe people who are not adopted just take the fact that they have access to that knowledge for granted. Anyway I know nothingabout my birth parents or lineage. Some people aren't bothered by that but I am. I just ordered a DNA kit from the company 23 and me online. It won't tell me everything bit it will tell me...after 37 years of not knowing... What part of the world my ancestors were from and which medical conditions I may be predisposed to. I can't wait to get the results! Just thought you may be I interested. Check it out it tells you a lot of info. Good luck you sound like a great mom.

    7. Very constructively written. I appreciate your specific needs and concerns and the open way you spoke about them. Thanks for being kind and keeping these comments "safe" to read :) hugs to you and your son. (PS - this might be dumb but maybe he would like to make up a story about where he came from re-framing his challenges into a "Super Hero" Type narrative... ?)

    8. Can I tell you something from a grown up adopted child point of view? It doesn't change the questions. I wanted to feel connected to my adopted parents on the scales of the biological children and they did that by treating me exactly like the bios. I heard all of these. How they met. How my grandparents met, what their nationalities are. All of it, and I felt more connected to my extended adopted family than I ever would have any other way. A child needs to remember their roots but they also need to feel like they are a part of the family that they are in.
      When I had to do the family tree for school it was my adopted family. And I was adopted at 7, not quite 10 but still old enough to remember life before adoption.

    9. My cousin adopted her son when he was 5 from foster care. She gathered as much information as she could about the birth family and put together an album for him. She got as many photos as she could from (the few non-hostile) relatives. It is difficult since both her son's birth parents have extensive issues (which is why they lost all parental rights). But she has still done her best to give him a narrative of both his birth family and his adoptive family. They celebrate his adoption day as their family day every year. It isn't always easy, but my cousin and her husband are doing their best to give him a connection to both identities.

    10. Our Daughter is adopted, though we got her at 3 weeks old, not 10 years so our experience is totally different from yours. We can do this for our family, though not for her birth family as we do not know their experience, and her birth parents have moved on and not kept in contact with us as we thought they would. I try to tell her what we know about them (age appropriate of course as she is only 4. As she is part of our family too we also tell our kids about our parents and grandparents. It is a way of keeping them all alive and helping them to understand the pictures we have of them as they have all passed away. It is hard for them to relate to a picture but we tell them the funny, odd, and different stories that we know about them.
      We have actually told our kids most of these "do you know" questions about our family as a way of helping them to understand who their grandparents, great-grandparents etc, were.
      Lisa-Hugs to you and your's and best of luck with dealing with your adoption journey as we all know it doesn't end when the child comes to live with you. It will continue for the rest of your life and each one is totally different.

    11. I LOVE this honest and respectful conversation! I was afraid to check the comments all day because I assumed I was going to be lambasted. So thank you everyone for taking my comment for what it was- simply a different experience. Yay for Internet kindness!
      I do agree that these questions are still important regardless of bio vs adopted kids. My family stories are my son's family stories. I just don't have any stories from the first 10 years of his life. That just plain sucks. But we are thankful for the time we have together now.
      One of the perks of older adoption is that for all the crap you go through, you still get to be the fun parent(s). We get to do all of our son's firsts at an age where he can really enjoy it all- Disney world, the beach, family vacations, etc. All of the fun part of being a family is new for him and it's all mine to give! :)

    12. Another adoptive parent here! I agree with a lot of what has been said, my adopted daughter is JUST as interested in our family stories as the bio kids, if not more so. I love this idea. With our adopted child, she loves hearing her story over and over and over again, even though we don't have information about her biological relatives. It helps her put events in to context and make sense of what happened when and, to some extent, why.

    13. Hi All:

      There's an interesting point in the NYT article to which Lydia linked: "“The most healthful narrative,” Dr. Duke continued, “is the third one. It’s called the oscillating family narrative: ‘Dear, let me tell you, we’ve had ups and downs in our family."

      Perhaps issues relating to adoption *might* be placed within this oscillating frame? Up-and-downs could relate to both the process of adoption itself as well as the process of your children's life?

      Just a thought...
      Cate (child of her birth parents who also has adopted siblings).

  2. YES! My children LOVE hearing family stories! I thought that they would find them boring but they ask me all the time, "Tell us more stories!" My mom made the mistake of trying to tell a "Once upon a time..." story and my oldest daughter corrected her saying, "I don't want to hear those stories. I want to hear stories about the people you love!" Melts my heart!

    The only problem we have is trying to tailor the stories a little so they are less adult themed. "Your daddy and I met in the Navy while at a keg party." is probably not the best...haha!!!!

  3. I love this idea! We are going to be with my parents and sister and her family this weekend. Planning to do this!

  4. This is a fantastic theme, and very important. My daughter is very interested in history in general and our family histories in particular, but I was always waiting for the "right time" to tell them. Then her grandpa let spill in an informal conversation that he was really my stepfather, that my mother had been married previously, and he had legally adopted her children. She was shocked and upset in a way that I don't think she would have been had I put it into the context of a family story up front. I can't get that moment back to fix, so I'll have to start from scratch with some of these questions as a starting point.

    On a related note, anyone have ideas/suggestions about how to talk about a newly transgender sibling? I could use the help!

  5. I love this idea! I'm sort of the unofficial family historian on both sides of my family - I've been working on the family tree since I was a teenager. My kids are too little to appreciate the stories and family history yet, but everyone else love hearing about how our great-grandfathers helped build a nation or how 4 siblings left England for four different countries at the turn of the 20th century. History - personal or general - helps you become the person you are.

  6. My kids love to hear stories in the car on the way home from family functions. Sometimes they want a genuine fictional story, but sometimes they ask for "real" stories - stories about Mommy and Daddy, stories about aunts and uncles, stories about grandparents, cousins, or even themselves. I love telling those stories! It's like bringing people we love to vivid life inside the car with us, even the ones who've passed on. The kids listen so carefully, and bring them up later at random times so I know they actually paid attention to something I said for once. Some family members they know so well from stories, they make Valentines for their graves because to them, that person is still very much a part of their lives. It's the best tradition we ever started. And one day, in between telling their kids about Anansi And The Tiger's Tail (invented by Mommy)and Thor And The Fart Contest (invented by Daddy, to WILD approval), I look forward to hearing my own children tell my grandbabies about The Time Poppie Beat His Mugger With A Piece of Lead Pipe (that happened), or The Time Uncle Isaiah Puked Poop (also true - and a great cautionary tale). We have a GREAT time telling stories, as you might imagine.

  7. This is something we've done with our kids from a VERY early age. On their birthdays they hear about the day they were born - what was going on, how I felt about it, what they looked like. A few nights ago around the dinner table they heard about the day I was born (we're having a baby in a few weeks so there are a lot of birth stories going on). We have a picture hanging on the wall in our kitchen of where we got married and they love hearing about that day. They know that my oldest is the personality clone of my father and why. They know that my second is the personality clone of his father and why. We take them to our alma mater for Homecoming so they've heard some of our (G rated) college stories. When my (78 year old) mom is in town for our baby's birth I'm going to record her talking about her stories growing up so my kids can listen to her in her own voice. My husband has videoed his (94 year old) grandpa talking about WWII, getting married, homesteading, etc. I have written stories from all of my grandparents about their formative years at the turn of the century. It's absolutely true that feeling that connectedness is essential for kids' sense of self.

  8. This is probably the one thing my parents did right raising me. My mother is a natural storyteller and I am the youngest of four and love to hear all the crazy stories of my older siblings before I was born. As a matter of fact, at dinner last night I was telling my 6 year old twins some very beloved tales of their Uncle from when I wasn't even born and they asked questions and were so interested!

  9. We haven't really spent much time sharing our stories orally, but I did originally start my own blog with the idea that there are at least a few good ones that needed to be preserved for anyone who wanted to read them at some point. Hopefully, my kids do. I was thinking how much I would have loved to have the same thing from my grandmothers.

    I also implored my mom to get her good stories in writing, and I have a bunch of them now. Again, something I wish I'd done for my grandparents (or more accurately, for me).

    Lastly: I love the thoughtful comments and suggestions about adopted families. My sister has two adopted sons. I think they will enjoy these kinds of stories, though they way in which you approach them and the context may be different. But ultimately it's all about sharing yourself and your history, and I think there's value in that no matter how your family came into being.

  10. One time, during a blackout, when we were searching for ways to occupy ourselves in the dark, I invented the game Family Trivia. Each family member, in turn, asks another family member a question about our family, or our extended family. We use it as a way to keep the family stories alive. Where did Mom and Dad have their first date? What special accomplishment did Grandma have when she was in seventh grade? Who is Dad's brother's wife? The person who gets the most right answers wins. In fact, we enjoy it so much, that sometimes we turn out all the lights and PRETEND that it's a blackout, and play!

  11. I met my other half via my daughter (and friends, of course). When she was three, some friends invited us out to their campsite to hang out, and he was there. They bonded over marshmellows and became BFF's. Almost six years later, we have a new addition to our family, and my daughter still talks about how she is the reason we are all together today. Sometimes she asks for it to be her bedtime story too. :)

  12. I come from a big Irish family, and story-telling is just part of our genetic make-up. No family gathering is complete without a recitation of who's older than who or the correct birth-order for us cousins. As someone who's parents both died before I hit 25, I so treasure having heard those stories over & over as a child. It gave me a history that is now lost to me.

    We also have a saying in our clan - anyone who shows up to more than 3 Thanksgivings is family. I think when you have a firm grounding in the family past; it makes one more open to discovering family is more than blood-lines, but is defined by those who are there no matter what.

  13. I am the youngest of five, huge extended family and yes, we heard stories upon stories as kids about our family. I have often felt like we had nothing comparable to offer our own kids.

    You just gave me reason to smile instead of cry that we cannot afford to send our son to summer camp EVERY week this summer - instead we have a fabulous project to conquer!


  14. I love the comments above - great insight & wisdom. I love family stories, but I am a storyteller by nature : ) I have learned so much about my husband's family, even though they are sooo not into family history and stories, but recently my 3 year old has become obsessed with the fact that her firs and middle name are from her (long deceased) great-grandparents. Telling her their stories - and letting her know that she is a different (alive) person from her grandparents has helped her in a first step to finding out who 'she' is. It's hard though finding stories about myself that don't involve me a.) breaking rules or b.) being sassy to my parents or others. I was a sassy kid. very sassy. I do NOT want them to make all the many, many mistakes I did - obsessive dating, sassing off, being isolated, etc. My journals are almost too painful to read. However, I think that as they get older, I will be able to be honest about what I've learned from all my mistakes. Oh, I did good stuff too (many poems about nuclear disarment and the state of our poluted world from 3rd grade on ; ) but sometimes it's hard to pick out a story I want to tell them. Anyway, I guess what I'm saying is that It's much easier to tell the family stories than mine - probably because the family stories have already been filtered and the bad stuff has dissolved with time. I believe in telling them the good & the bad, but it's a whole 'nother story when the stories about the naughty kid are all me. (for the record, I was a pastor's kid, who moved around all. the. time.)

  15. I was just watching a video from Bruce Feiler this morning talking about the exact same subject! He has some great ideas I'd like to implement. It feels like deja vu to read your link an hour later, and a sign to buy the book. Here's a link to the video:

  16. I love family stories!!! I can honestly say that I have seen the sadness that can happen when a family doesn't share there stories or won't. My husband always asks his parents questions about his family and he is often met with two word answers or no answer at all. He is sad a frustrated that he doesn't know more about his grandparents and other family members. For some reason, they just aren't willing to share much.

    Some of my favorite moments with my parents are when they would go into story mode and tell me family history. I've since found out that stories were pretty heavily edited when I was younger and only now am I getting all the awful details of some of the horrible things that have happened in my extended family. However, even with those details I feel better knowing these things and knowing where my family has come from. Often it gives me a renewed appreciation for my family members! I can't wait to tell my kids the stories!

  17. Family stories are a little bit of an obsession of mine. I have gotten slightly addicted to doing my family history, and it is really to find stories of your relatives from way back when. I use the website a lot. You can make your own family tree and everything! Sharing family stories with our kids is a great idea!

  18. This is a WONDERFUL idea! I may have to change around some of the dirty details, but I'm definitely going to start doing this!

  19. What a great idea! I think sharing family stories with our children is more important than ever. Instead of plopping them down in front of the TV, video game or iPad, we should spend quality time sharing all of the funny, sweet and even serious stories that make up their family history. This is part of the reason I recently started blogging. I wanted to record all of the little stories and funny anecdotes in my girls' first years so they could read them when they're older. I didn't want to rely on my rapidly declining 'mommy brain!'

  20. My 3 year old son when through a stage where he was telling "when I was a little girl" stories. I guess I do tell my stories, just didn't think about it until this post.

  21. This is exactly why I started my blog a month ago, to force me to write down some of those family stories I wanted my kids to hear, especially those stories about their grandfather who died a year ago.

  22. About the time my son was born, I started a family history book (in a 3 ring binder). My aunt had compiled a book of family pictures with some short biographies of her parents, grandparents, etc. She lent it to me to copy the pictures, and I came up with the idea of asking our relatives to write their own autobiographical sketches. It's something that we can add to over time (and hand down). I just think it's great to have these stories documented in my relatives' own "voices."

  23. My oldest son is 13 and loves to hear family stories. My sister is married and lives in a different state. She still calls me pretty much weekly for "story time". Somehow I remember more about our family than she does so she puts the phone on speaker and I tell the family stories to her and her husband. These always end in laughter. Great times that I hope continue on for many years!




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