How Family Stories Shape Our Identities


by Rachel Coleman

Why do family stories matter? They directly impact how we see ourselves, our ability to succeed, and even our level of resiliency.

“Let me tell you a story about when I was your age.” How many of us remember hearing this from our parents at bedtime when we were children? How many of us have said this to our own children or grandchildren? Besides the quality bonding time that sharing family stories can provide to your relationship, experts and researchers have discovered a host of additional benefits, both for the listener as well as the storyteller.



Establish Our Core Identity

Family stories directly impact how we see ourselves because they give us an idea of where we come from and how we fit into our family. Think of each family story as a single thread in a tapestry woven with beautiful, complex patterns, colors, and designs. Like the tapestry, we are a combination of the culture, history, and traditions we inherited from our own families.

Family narrative researcher Robyn Fivush found that sharing family stories contributes to kids’ emerging sense of self, both as an individual and as a member of a unified family. Adolescents who are able to recount specifics and details of family stories have higher self-esteem and greater resilience. Our family stories give us a sense of belonging and create a core identity that can be a great source of empowerment.

Fortify Faith in Ourselves

Sharing family stories helps us to evaluate the actions of others and create meaning from the past. When facing challenges, we can draw strength from stories of relatives who also struggled with similar challenges and obstacles and were then able to overcome them.

During his keynote presentation at RootsTech 2016, David Isay, the founder and president of StoryCorps, shared an audio recording of a man named Lynn Weaver telling his daughter a story about his own father, Ted Weaver, who worked as a janitor and chauffeur to provide for the family. One night, after struggling with his algebra homework, Lynn gave up on the assignment and went to bed. Ted woke Lynn up at 4 o’clock in the morning, having stayed up all night to read through the algebra book and learn the concepts so he could teach them to his son. Lynn, who went on to become a renowned surgeon, later told his daughter, “To this day, I live my life trying to be half the man my father was.”

Stories of perseverance and resilience like this one help us to foster faith in ourselves. Knowing that our forebears triumphed over hard things gives us the faith and hope that we will too.

Increase Empathy

Hearing the stories of our families and learning of the hardships they faced helps us develop understanding, compassion, and empathy for them. Isay said, “The power of authentic stories, of stories told from the heart . . . the power to build bridges between people, bridges of understanding, is infinite.”

When we hear the narratives of family members who have gone before us, we often learn we are traveling similar paths. We notice common threads and intersections in our stories. “You’re going to walk in the footsteps of that person and recognize a little bit of yourself in that person,” said Isay. The more we read and hear, the more we come to see that we are more alike than different. Shared stories turn our hearts to our fathers, mothers, and ancestors.

Testify of Truth

Family stories are witnesses of personal experiences and cultural history. The combined letters, journals, oral accounts, pictures, and videos that tell our stories all bear witness to simple truths. They show our family members and their life experiences through an authentic lens, so we can better understand how they really were.

In a world where the truth can be hard to distinguish, it’s become even more important to have these sources that we know we can trust. “We are surrounded by so much nonsense, and you don’t know what’s real and what’s an advertisement. But the stories you collect, the stories of our families, these are the authentic stories,” Isay said. Sharing your experiences brings another authentic voice into the world and testifies to your family and loved ones of the truths you have learned throughout your life.

What Can You Do?

So, what can you do to bring these and many other benefits to your own family? Isay said, “Listening is an act of love. A place where two people talk and ask the questions they’ve always wanted to ask is a sacred space.” If you want a happier, more resilient family, create those sacred spaces and tell your stories.

  • You can start right now.
  • Talk to your kids about the traditions you grew up with.
  • Tell stories about your family and your culture. Tell about the hardships and the triumphs.

That simple act may just increase the likelihood that your family will thrive for many generations to come.



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