Sign up for Meridian’s Free Newsletter, please CLICK HERE
With three children under 8 at our home, family dinner is often hectic, frustrating, and anything but enjoyable. Some nights when we sit down together all that can be heard is:
“Ugh, be quiet, stop making that noise, you’re bothering me.”
“Please don’t eat until we say the prayer.”
“Please pass the cheese.”
“Can I have more noodles?”
“Don’t get up until you finish your food.”
If a meal passes and all I did was give orders, I feel that I missed an opportunity. In The Secrets of Happy Families, author Bruce Feiler notes that a good portion of family mealtime is composed of procedural instructions and requests like “pass the salt.” He recommends that parents try to engage children in about 10 minutes of real talking during meals.
What can parents talk about with their children at dinner? It’s fairly simple to talk about how the day went and plans for the week. Yet I have found that sharing simple stories from personal and family history creates a more meaningful discussion.
To children, anything that happened before they were born is family history. I have told my children about how my husband and I met, my brother and I making a mudhole in the backyard as kids, their grandma who rode her horse in a parade, their great-uncle’s pet monkey, their great-great-grandfather’s life as sheriff, their great-great-grandfather’s experience with prayer, and so on. I try to match the stories to my children’s interests. Some stories are universally interesting, like stories of overcoming hardships, courage, faith, and love.
Sharing personal stories of overcoming trials creates the perfect opportunity for sharing my testimony. These kinds of stories have prompted my 7-year-old son to ask very sincere questions about life, bringing the conversation to a place where I can talk of Christ and “rejoice in Christ, that [my] children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins.”
You don’t have to know a lot about your family history to begin sharing stories. Stories from your own life will do. Children will be curious about your days growing up. You can share funny stories, sentimental stories, and stories that can help your children overcome obstacles. Stories about practicing sports, getting a job, going to college, overcoming bullying, and so on, will help them through their own difficulties. It may seem hard to begin, but I’ve noticed that looking at old photos and telling a very short memory can be a catalyst for remembering more experiences from the past.
Stories that cultivate resilience
In The Secrets of Happy Families, Bruce Feiler interviewed Marshall Duke, psychologist, researcher and author of the paper “The Intergenerational Self: Subjective Perspective and Family History.” Duke and his colleagues found that children who know more about their family history are more emotionally resilient. Children usually hear family stories from their mother or grandmother, in the form of a “bubbemeise,” Yiddish for “grandmother’s fable,” a story that grandmothers tell children when they are in the midst of a challenge. “You’re having trouble with math, kid? Let me tell you, your father had trouble with math.”
Recently, as I talked with my grandmother about the struggles of being a stay-at-home mom, I recognized her use of the bubbemeise. My grandmother raised ten children herself and is an incredible example to me. She told me about the days of cloth diapers and folding 20 of them a day. She told a funny story about my dad and his brother fighting as they ran out the front door. That got us really laughing. Laughing with Grandma is the best medicine. The connection with a loving family member is even more soothing than the story itself. Sharing stories, feelings, and testimonies, truly lifts us to a higher plane.
When my son was 6 years old, I had the chance to tell him a bubbemeise. He was born with spina bifida, a birth defect that causes varying levels of paralysis in the lower extremities. He walks, but with a unique gait, and runs bit slower than other children. One day, he came home from a playdate and asked, “mom, do you think I’ll ever be able to run fast like my friends?” My heart broke. But then I recognized my chance to tell him a special story, one that I’d been saving for the right moment.
“Honey, I am so glad that you can run,” I told him. “Did you know that we weren’t sure if you would even be able to walk? Before you were born, the doctors said you might have to be in a wheelchair. When you learned how to walk, we were so happy.”
I continued, “I bet you want to run faster. But do you know what? I’m not a very fast runner either. I wanted to be faster too, like you do. A few months after you were born, I decided to do a hard race to show you that I could do hard things, and so can you. I signed up for a really hard race called a triathlon. I had never done one before, and I wasn’t very fast.
“So, I started practicing every day. I made a practice schedule. I didn’t miss a day. I didn’t know how to swim more than one length of the pool without stopping for a break, but I went to the pool and practiced over and over until I got better. I didn’t know if I could run 3 miles after riding my bike 19 miles, but I practiced with shorter distances until I got better.
“And then the week of the race came. We all went to San Diego. Daddy and I went swimming in the ocean to practice for the 500 meter swim. I started swimming in the cold water and my arms felt heavy. The wet-suit didn’t fit right and it was filling up with water. I slowed down and a wave crashed over my head. I started choking on the salty ocean water. Daddy had to help me swim back to the shore.
“I thought I would fail! I didn’t think I could do the triathlon. But I didn’t give up. I went back to the ocean the next day and practiced again.
“When the weekend for the race came, I was ready. I did my best! I wasn’t the fastest, but I kept going until I finished. And I did it!
“Did you win?” My son interjected.
“I didn’t win. Lots of other people were faster than me. They were nice as they passed me and said encouraging things. When I was done with the race, I felt incredible. I was so happy that I did something that hard. And it was fun!
“So you see, you don’t have to be the fastest, and you don’t have to win. As long as you don’t give up and keep trying, you can do hard things, feel good about yourself, and have fun too.”
He was surprised that I didn’t win and was happy anyway. He gave me a big hug and an even bigger smile. I felt so much love for him in that moment.
Will you have stories to fit every challenge that your child faces? No, probably not. But between you, your spouse, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, great-grandparents, and more ancestors, you can probably find a bubbemeise for most situations your child may be in. The collective experience of family members makes raising strong children possible.
Before you decide to give your children a book filled with family history stories, know that researchers have found that talking in person with children about family stories is a crucial ingredient for helping them become resilient.
Bruce Feiler wrote, “Dinner does not cause the benefits…what generates the sense of attachment and emotional toughness is the process of hearing all those old stories and seeing yourself in the larger flow of your family. In other words, what we think of as family dinner is not really about the dinner. It’s about the family.”
Feeding children with family stories not only makes mealtime more enjoyable, but it empowers them to face challenges with strength. The act of telling stories together creates bonding experiences that make children feel loved and feel part of something. They belong. They are loved. They are propelled forward by the power of their family’s past.
How to find Family Stories at FamilySearch
If your relatives have contributed to the collaborative FamilySearch Family Tree, you may be lucky enough to find incredible stories in the Memories section of your ancestor’s profiles. Sign in to your account and view the tree, then click on each ancestor to see their profile page. Add stories to your own profile page for your children and grandchildren to read.
The FamilySearch web app All The Stories makes it even easier to read the stories of your relatives in one place. Sign into the app with your FamilySearch account to see a list of stories that have been added to your ancestor’s profiles.
 2 Nephi 25:26
 Bruce Feiler, The Secrets of Happy Families (New York, NY: William Morrow, 2013), 42.
 Feiler, The Secrets of Happy Families, 42.