The Power Of Family Stories

the power of family stories

Every family, every college, every corporation, every institution needs tribal storytellers. The penalty for failing to listen is to lose one’s history, one’s historical context, one’s binding values.

Max De Pree, Leadership Is An Art 

On Christmas Eve, the cousins chose to watch The Sound of Music. This surprised me, as the cousins’ ages range from pre-teen to twenty-somethings. Within a few minutes, though, three generations were engrossed in a musical that might not be considered cool or masculine.

But what a powerful story. A family making a decision to leave a home and country that they dearly loved. A father having the courage to know that “flight” instead of “fight” was essential for the survival of his family. Through their story, we know the values that the Von Trapps considered vital, and the price they were willing to pay to live by their standards.

Each of us, every family, has stories that communicate the essence of who we are, what we stand for, and how we’ve survived tough times. We need to find these stories and use them.

Evelyn Clark, author of Around the Corporate Campfire, coaches business leaders to use their stories to inspire success in their company, and to communicate values and expectations.

David Armstrong of Armstrong International loves to tell the story of “The Day I Paid $248,000 to Play a Round of Golf.” Doesn’t that make some of our mistakes look, well, small?

David Armstrong’s assistant general manager made a decision to purchase equipment for the cost of $248,000, while his boss was out on the golf course one morning. The manager was authorized to spend $20,000. Even though his manager had gone twelve times over his spending limit, Armstrong didn’t fire this employee.

Why? Because the manager took the initiative to buy machines he knew would be needed when the supplier called with an offer of almost new equipment. When the manager learned that another company was interested, he made an on the spot decision. His decisiveness saved Armstrong International significant money, enabled them to catch up on a backlog of orders, and provided better customer service. That’s why David Armstrong loves to tell his $248,000 golf story. It communicates his values. Armstrong uses this story to celebrate decision-making and risk-taking abilities within his organization.

Stories can be powerful teaching tools for our families. We have tales that can help our children understand who we are, who they are, our expectations for them, and how our family meets adversity.

You might think you don’t have a history as powerful as the Von Trapp or Armstrong stories, but you do. Each of us has vital experiences we need to explore, tell and retell.

How do we find these stories?

Begin by thinking about some of these ideas:

  1. What was one of your most embarrassing moments? How did you act? How did you overcome it?
  2. What was your happiest moment? How long did it last? How do you retain or recreate that happiness?
  3. What was your saddest moment?
  4. When did you make a bad decision? What were the consequences? How did you work through the consequences?

Our stories can help our children learn to be resilient, honest, courageous, compassionate, strong, resourceful, and more. Powerful stories tell about deeply held beliefs, an individual’s philosophy of life and mission, thus giving a reason for being.

The story of Odysseus in Homer’s The Odyssey remains a classic because the myth addresses beliefs, philosophy and mission. Odysseus’ decisions, good and bad, create life-threatening predicaments. In the original cliffhanger, Odysseus survives to return home, only to discover more difficulties.

To understand how a story communicates convictions, the Puffin Classic version of The Odyssey is a worthwhile out loud family read.

We are on an odyssey, an amazing adventure. Let’s tell tales to convey our family’s history, context and values.

connecting with children

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