Family Stories and Why They Matter | October 4, 2013

Family Stories And Why They Matter

When my wife was eleven years old, she tackled a neighborhood boy and sat on him until he promised not to bother her little brother anymore.

My wife is the second born of four children, three girls and a boy. As the second child, she was less cautious than her older sister, and more protective than her younger sister, so when Jimmy Woods began taunting her little brother, she took the matter into her own hands even though she was only in fifth grade. As Jimmy pedaled his bicycle past her and her little brother, she grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and pulled him from the bicycle so quickly that the riderless bicycle kept going down the street. She then sat on Jimmy Woods until he promised to stop being mean.

Mrs. Caldwell is not a particularly violent woman. She is the kind of person who will shepherd a spider out the door rather than step on it. She is quite loving and nurturing, but when a moment like that arises, she is ferocious, and that day she taught Jimmy Woods a lesson he would not forget.

My wife will not put up with people being mean to each other or doing unjust things. As a young mother of three toddlers, she once waded into the Appoquinimink River near our home in Delaware to confront a fisherman who was using illegal gill nets. Leaving our three children on the bank, she waded waist-deep into the muddy, brackish water to passionately lecture the fisherman about his illegal actions, starting with how unfair it was for the fish. The fisherman fled.

In our family, we love recounting these stories about her. And there are many. (In a more recent episode at our fitness club she defended a worker from being cruelly and unfairly treated by another patron. That is a story for another day.)

Our children love the story of my mother, who once pulled her mattress out the window onto the roof of her dorm so that she could watch the stars before she fell asleep. I think what fascinates our children the most about this family story is that my mother was a 10 year-old at a boarding school when she did that.

Of course, not all of the family stories are about heroics. Some are about enduring hardship, which is its own form of heroism. Our children know the story about my wife's brother who developed mental illness when he was a senior at Yale, and has never been the same since, but he has endured. They know the story about my sister who had depression and endured. They know many stories about my father who has slow-growing lymphoma and is the happiest 84 year-old alive, still planting his garden, still brewing beer, still skiing, still writing letters to the editor to tell them his opinion on...everything.

While these family stories may seem incidental, Professor Duke of Emory University would argue that they are not at all inconsequential. In fact, he has done years of research on the effect of family stories, and he argues that children who have strong family narratives, that is, children who know the good stories as well as the hard stories about their families, develop a stronger sense of self and resilience because they know they are part of something larger than themselves.

But it is not only the information in these stories that is important. The context in which the stories are told is crucial.

Professor Duke says this about his research:

"In order to hear family stories, people need to sit down with one another and not be distracted. Some people have to talk and some have to listen. The stories need to be told over and over and the times of sitting together need to be multiple and occur over many years. The most convenient times traditionally have been family dinners, family trips in the car, vacations, and birthday gatherings."

So why am I talking about family storytelling?

Because, in fact, I want to talk about leadership.

Our sense of identity and belonging begins with our family stories. They embody not only a piece of our collective past but also some version of how we feel about it because we express our values through the stories.

True leadership begins with knowing who you are and being comfortable with that person, and when this happens, you can make other people comfortable with who they are.

I realize some of you might think that leadership is not something you aspire to, but each of you has the potential to be a leader because leaders come in many different forms and contexts. Sometimes the emergence of a leader depends on the context or situation, so you might not always recognize a leader when one exists before your eyes ---even if that leader is yourself.

We tend to see leaders as having robust styles, great physical presence, and obvious qualities of confidence and charisma, but I hope you can broaden your perception of leadership. Sometimes it is what we do in the smallest, most peripheral moments -gestures of generosity and compassion - that make us great leaders.

And here is a critical point about leadership: following a good leader is leadership in itself.

Our School's newly adopted definition of leadership is: A leader at MBS listens compassionately, takes responsibility, and acts inclusively and with humility.

This is something all of you have the capacity for. With these gestures of compassion and inclusivity, you can inspire those around you to be their best selves.

So now I am going to return to the importance of family stories and their ability to help you know who you are because self-understanding is the first step in leadership.

I am going to give you a test on how much you know about your family history. Professor Duke designed this test to investigate the knowledge children have about their extended families. Don't worry if you don't know the answers to the questions, but I hope at some point this year, you ask your relatives to tell you these stories.

I am going to use Professor Duke's "Do You Know" scale, and I am only going to give you a sample of a few questions.

Are you ready? Raise your hands if the answer is "yes."

1. How many of you know how your parents met?
2. How many of you know where some of your grandparents grew up?
3. Do you know where some of your grandparents met?
4. Do you know the source of your name?
5. How many of you know which person in the family you act most like?

I can see that many of you already know some of your family stories, and that's wonderful. I hope that you find a way to continue telling these stories or finding out more about your family's narrative.

I will end with a story that is one of my children's favorite tales.

When I was in kindergarten, I used to walk to school with my friend Becky Shore. Becky had bright red curly hair, and I loved walking to school with her. To get to school, we had to walk about three-quarters of a mile down a dirt road, through a cow pasture, down a gully and over a little footbridge. One day, however, we could not cross the little footbridge because every time we moved down the gully and towards the bridge, the cows on the other side moved aggressively towards us. We would retreat, and they would hold their ground. We would venture down again, and they would move towards us, blocking our way. They would not let us cross. We did not know what to do.

So what do you think we did?

That story will have to wait for another time.


"The Stories That Bind Us: What Are the Twenty Questions?" by Mashall P. Duke
The Huffington Post
March 23, 2013

"This Life: The Stories That Bind Us" by Bruce Feiler
The New York Times
March 15, 2013


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