How to Collect and Share Family Stories

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61b3bZl5O4LIn “Bringing the Story Home: The Complete Guide to Storytelling for Parents”, author Lisa Lipkin shares how storytelling can bring families together.

On an ordinary afternoon in 1967, I came home crying. “Mrs. Ross is the meanest teacher I’ve ever had!,” I blurted out from behind a torrent of tears. My father, a street smart Brooklynite with a chronic twinkle in his eye, knew the perfect antidote for my grammar school woes. “You think your teacher is mean?!,” he said. You don’t know what mean is until you’ve experienced Miss Moldy.” He proceeded to describe his third grade school marm, a 1930’s disciplinarian with wire-rim glasses and a black dress buttoned to her chin, whose merciless gaze and “spanking stick” kept even the naughtiest students at bay. Apparently, one day my father came late to school. Ms. Moldy, a stickler for tardiness, made him bend over and was about to spank him in front of his classmates when fate intervened. At that very moment there was a fire drill, and my father escaped his public flogging. I was mesmerized by my dad’s anecdote. Suddenly, my own situation with nasty Mrs. Ross didn’t seem so bad after all. In sharing his story with me, my father not only put things into perspective, but comforted me by reminding me of our common experience. Instinctively, he understood that in revealing his personal stories he would not only be showing me a side of himself, but schooling me in some of life’s most important lessons.

Family stories are our finest teachers. Though not always factually accurate, they tell us an awful lot about a family member’s hopes, fears and dreams. They provide us with a strong sense of right and wrong, and convey to children guiding principals and morals. They are also one of the best ways to get close to your kids. By revealing your past, you’re allowing your children to know you in a fully dimensional light. Unfortunately, our high tech, fast paced technological age, has relegated family stories to the back burners of our lives. We’ve forgotten that storytelling provides automatic companionship, a sense of belonging, roots to grab hold of. We’ve forgotten its ability to soothe an aching spirit and transcend our immediate worries. In our rush to move forward, we’ve forgotten that unless we hear the stories of where we have been, we can’t begin to understand where we are going. But even if you have a strong desire to collect and share your family’s rich folklore, where do you begin? For starters, you need let go of the notion that you have to be a professional storyteller or folklorist in order to extract great stories from your kin.

Everyone has a story in them and there is no greater joy than sharing those anecdotes with others. Once you get started, you’ll be amazed by how willing people are to share their stories. As a professional storyteller, I’ve seen the tremendous power that stories wield in bringing families together. I’ve developed the following guidelines over the last ten years working in schools, community centers, museums and festivals. Even if they seem silly at first, try them anyway. You’ll be amazed at how well they work. Remember, in creating a home filled with stories, you are giving your kids a tremendous gift, one filled with knowledge of the past and a strong foundation for future growth.

MEMORY MAPS SUPPLIES: Paper and pencil

Recollections of play can be the best vehicle for tapping into memory. Draw a map of your favorite spot where you played as a child and a particular story that happened at that site and share it with your children. Once your children are familiar with the activity, have them ask other family members to do the same. As a follow-up activity, encourage your children to keep a scrap book of these play maps along with their accompanying stories. Make sure they mark which family member belongs to each map.


All of us remember precious family keepsakes from our childhoods. Even if the actual objects have disappeared, they exist in your personal storehouse of memories. Pull them out and share them with your kids by doing the following: Drop an imaginary chest on the floor, filled with your favorite childhood objects. Take them out, one by one and describe them to your kids in vivid detail. Start by pulling out your favorite doll, describing her clothes, the texture of her skin, her smile. Or reach in and find your mother’s elegant felt hat, and describe how she placed it on her head and how it looked on her as she strolled down the street. Remember, kids love to imagine. As long as you create a visual picture of the object, describing it with as much detail as possible, your children will have no trouble seeing it


Pull a ring of keys from your pocket after dinner. Choose one key and describe an adventure or a funny thing that happened inside the room it opens. Perhaps the key to the attic reminds you of a diary you store there, filled with childhood memories. Or maybe your car key makes you think of the time you dropped an entire ice cream cone on the front seat. Whoops! Have other family members do the same with their keys. Even the simplest stories and memories will fascinate your children.


Throw out the name of an object, any object. Take turns sharing any personal story, memory, or anecdote inspired by that object. For example, the word GARLIC might remind you of your grandmother’s kitchen, and the delicious family meals she cooked on Sunday afternoons. Or the word DIAMOND might help you recall the time you proposed to your wife, or the time you went shopping with your husband for your ring. Have your children call out the name of objects too. Remember: Everyone has a story to tell, no matter how silly or insignificant it might seem to you. Sharing even the smallest memory with your children will fascinate them.


Ask your child to be the host of a talk show in which you are the guest. But instead of playing yourself, become a person from your past. Perhaps you’re that strict grammar school principal you dreaded. Or maybe the friendly post man who always patted you on the head as he walked by. Have your child ask you questions about your life. Involve other family members by making them audience members who may have questions to ask. Reverse roles. Have your child become a character from his past and you become the host.


“Firsts” are always memorable and can be the best way for tapping into your relatives’ stories. Ask them to describe their first… Bicycle Ice Cream Cone Trip away from home Fancy Party Car House Pet Teacher Job School Dance Make up other firsts too and add them to your list


Family expressions are the poetry of everyday life. If you think long enough, you’ll will be able to recall a turn of phrase or a set of words that were used within the inner circle of your family. For example, Margaret Clark, a 36 year old educator from Washington, D.C. recalls: ‘When I was young I brought my brother a book for his birthday, a biography of Houdini. He had barely unwrapped it when I grabbed it back from him and ran away and hid for the rest of the birthday party and read the book. It was a big joke that I had bought him a book which I obviously wanted. So ever after that, anytime anyone gave a gift that was clearly something that the giver wanted perhaps more than the givee, it was called a ‘Houdini.’ Here’s how you can start this exercise— A family expression used around my house is: The story that started it was:



 Whether you realize it or not, if you’ve ever had a backyard barbecue on Memorial Day or called your dog with a particular sound, you’ve established a family custom. The shared activities we call customs are often unique to each family. Often, they begin with a story. For example, when my father was a little boy, milk would be delivered in glass bottles, straight from the dairy farms. Since milk wasn’t homogenized back then, the cream would separate from the rest and float to the top of my father’s cup. In order to mix it all up, he would have to shake his cup in a circular motion before drinking. The funny thing is, he still shakes his cup today-regardless of what he’s drinking! Many families enjoy the fact that they have certain traditions, even if they are experienced only on special occasions. Stella Fraser from Mexico recalls: The biggest thing at Christmas is having tamales Christmas Eve. We’d go to mass and come back and have hot tamales, and coffee. Like I say, we didn’t have many gifts; the food was really the thing that brought everybody together. It wasn’t so much a religious holiday as it was rejoicing that we’d had another good year of being together. For David Naor, who grew up in Israel, Friday nights had a special meaning: Every Friday night, just after the sun set, I would visit my grandmother who lived a few blocks away, and read her the Sabbath prayers. It was understood that this was the accepted ritual-every Friday night, my grandmother would wait for me to come. Family customs not only mark time, but they tell a wonderful story about the individual natures of families. Help your children recall some of your own customs here: Describe a family custom: The story behind it is: