Q&A with Kelly Marin: Making Family Storytelling Meaningful
Before You knows the power behind family storytelling reaches far beyond creating laughter around the dinner table. Science shows that regularly sharing family stories with your children decreases rates of anxiety and depression during their adolescent years, increases their self-esteem, and helps them feel more certain about their self-identity. To gain insight on how parents can add family storytelling to their family routine and reap the rewards of these magical benefits, we chatted with Kelly Marin, Associate Professor of Psychology at Manhattan College and co-author of “Family Narrative Interaction and Children’s Sense of Self,” to hear her take on meaningful storytelling.
What led you to study the psychology of family storytelling?
As an undergraduate student, I was introduced to narrative research. For example, we are the stories that we tell. So, when applying for grad school, I knew I wanted to do narrative research – the question for me was in what context? At the time, few people were doing narrative research, and even fewer were doing family narrative research. I came across Dr. Robyn Fivush’s work on family narratives, and I was immediately drawn to it. I wanted to learn more. Family dynamics and relationships were something that always interested me.
“Like so many others, my family is quite complicated. I thought that family storytelling would be a way to examine and make sense of both the messiness and joy we experience in families.”
Did family storytelling make an impact on your childhood?
I loved hearing stories about family members I had never met or experiences that were unknown to me. It was through these stories that I learned what it meant to be a member of my family. Also, an important aspect of identity is creating personal continuity across time. For me, hearing family stories created a foundation for which I understood my past, present, and future selves. Finally, I have fond memories of my brother, my dad, and myself telling stories about funny shared experiences. The storytelling I remember created a special bond among the three of us- one I’ll always cherish.
How has the understanding of the value of family storytelling evolved since you started researching the issue?
More recent research has pointed to the value of intergenerational stories- those stories about your parents or grandparents. These stories create connections among family members and provide important information about the self.
What is the ideal age for parents to start sharing family stories with their children?
The earlier the better! Interestingly, most parents start sharing stories with their child even before the child can speak.
Do children benefit more from stories that involve relatives outside of their immediate family and may have happened before they were born or stories that involve the child and the immediate family?
Children are told (and can tell) stories about important family events that they did not participate in, or that took place before they were born. These kinds of family stories, such as how parents met, are important for creating a shared history and ultimately a family identity. Similarly, stories about members outside of the immediate family are important for the same reasons. Some research that came out of the research lab I worked in as a graduate student pointed to the importance of knowing simple facts about the family, such as a grandparent’s real name or birthday related to positive things such as self-esteem and sense of personal control. It’s likely that this kind of family knowledge is learned through family storytelling.
Should parents shy away from telling stories that may involve a struggle or crisis?
Definitely not. Stories about struggle or negative events – such as the death of a grandparent or beloved family pet – need to be told and constructed as a family in ways that everyone, especially children, can voice their perspective and express their feelings. One of my earlier studies found that talking about the negative is an important context for emotion socialization.
“What seems to be essential is when parents not only identify and acknowledge negative emotions such as sadness and anger, but provide an explanatory framework for the child. This allows the child to not only identify that they were sad, but to also understand why they were sad and to explore and process that emotion.”
Not everything is positive in our lives, and talking about it as a family in these ways relates to good things such as self-competence and self-esteem.
What is the best way to tell stories to children – verbally, visually, or both?
Stories can be expressed in many ways, but most of the research finds the benefits of storytelling when verbal or written. However, visuals would be great in prompting stories – particularly in younger children who are just learning how to tell stories.
What are some example story prompts that you have found to be beneficial or most effective?
I tend to use very simple open-ended prompts when trying to elicit family stories, such as “recall a recent negative/positive event that your family experienced in the last year.” A more specific prompt might be, “tell me the story of the day you were born.” Birth stories are popular family stories that families enjoy telling over and over.
What effects of family storytelling can be seen in children when they reach their adolescent years?
Adolescence and young adulthood are important times for identity development and self-understanding. Adolescents are trying to figure out: who am I and what do I believe? Family storytelling provides a foundation for individuals to explore these questions.
Make story time rewarding for your little ones, while securely capturing memories for generations to come. Before You is bringing family storytelling into the modern world. Download the app today and start building your family path!