by Steve Wilson
Growing up, I loved listening to my grandmother tell stories of growing up on the western Kansas prairie in the early 1900s. Grammy was born in a sod house and raised her own family during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s! For a kid who lived in suburban Chicago, that was fascinating stuff. Those family stories gave me a connection to my grandmother, my mom and their extended family that I remember to this day. I have a lot of stories from that side of my family.
Not so much from my dad’s side of the family. He was an only child, adopted by a man in his second marriage. Dad didn’t get connected to his extended family and really didn’t talk a lot about his life growing up.
Dad died five years ago and one of my few regrets is not talking with him more about his childhood. We did spend one precious afternoon sitting on the sofa with a laptop, taking a virtual “street view” tour of the city in upstate New York in which he was raised. I got to see the apartment building he lived in on the city’s main square and the high school he attended. We talked about how he got started as a track athlete, which turned in to a lifelong avocation of competitive running.
Dad died several months after that walk down memory lane. I wish the walk had been longer, and I wish we had taken more walks together. There was just so much we didn’t uncover, so much that would have helped me better understand who I am. But the opportunity is gone.
I don’t know why my dad didn’t talk more about his childhood and share family stories. Perhaps there were uncomfortable or painful experiences. Maybe he thought his past wasn’t all that significant and therefore not worth sharing. Maybe he was embarrassed about growing up poor or adopted.
Whatever the reason, I feel like I’m missing something. There is a void in my self-awareness. A few of the puzzle pieces are missing. As I grow older, I feel that I am becoming more like my dad or, in some areas, trying to be less like him. Not having a better perspective on how Dad’s life unfolded makes it a bit harder to understand myself.
My own kids are at various stages of launching into adulthood. Fortunately, they know a lot of my stories. I’ve shared regularly at different stages of their lives. They’ve heard about my best friend in grade school and our adventures in the creek by our house or going uptown to meet my dad at the train station after his daily commute from downtown Chicago. They know about my summer vacations in western Kansas and the wagon train adventure we had one year. And, of course, they’ve heard multiple times about the long-distance dating relationship with their mother (the “his” and “her” versions!).
My hope is that the family stories our kids have listened to over the years have given them a greater sense of belonging and identity and a deeper connection to a positive family heritage. Not surprisingly, family story-telling has been studied and the results are encouraging. One article in the Atlantic Monthly magazine cited several studies showing that, when parents share more family stories with their children, the kids benefit. They learn to tell richer, more complete narratives, they demonstrate better understanding of other people’s emotions and thoughts, they have higher self-esteem, better coping skills and lower rates of depression and anxiety. All good outcomes!
Dads, our kids need to know who we are and “from whence they came.” Tell stories about your childhood and youth; retell stories you heard from your parents; even share stories from when your kids were little. This will give your children a greater sense of connection and identity.
Whether they are toddlers or teenagers, kids can learn a lot from our stories. And family stories are free. No books to buy, no subscriptions to renew; they can be told anywhere, anytime. Your stories can be given away without having to give them up. And, best of all, your children can keep them and cherish them for a lifetime.
Just Be a Family Storyteller. Just Be DAD.
Steve Wilson is a former staff member at the National Center for Fathering. Steve has coordinated fathering seminars, worked with local volunteer teams and worked with leaders in both Ukraine and Poland to help establish fathering movements in those countries. Steve and his wife Michelle have four children and live in the Kansas City area.