Sharing Stories Across Generations

A Conversation with Dr. Marshall Duke

Dr. Marshall Duke is a professor of psychology at Emory University. He has built his academic and research career around families and traditions. Following a keynote presentation he delivered at the Family Philanthropy Resource Center’s fall event, we had a chance to catch up with Dr. Duke and ask him for some of his wisdom on storytelling. Here’s what he had to say:

Dr. Marshall Duke

Dr. Marshall Duke

Foundation: Through your research on the theme of resilience, what did you learn about the correlation between storytelling across generations and resilience? 

Dr. Duke: The single strongest predictor of children’s resilience appears to be knowledge of their family history. The primary source of this knowledge are the stories that are told to them by relatives, parents and (mostly) grandparents.

Foundation: What kinds of stories should parents and grandparents be sharing? When is the appropriate time to begin sharing these stories (and when, if ever, is it too late)?

Dr. Duke: Stories should be told when they seem fitting in a situation. For instance, when kids have trouble in school they will benefit most from stories about family members who had similar problems. Adults need to use good judgment in sharing stories – the age of the child, the circumstances, and the ability of the child to understand. There are no hard rules on this. What might be perfect for one child might not be for another.  With age comes wisdom, both for telling and for hearing stories. All families have a story “set” composed of all the things that have happened across the generations. As in literary stories there are seven basic story themes in families:

  1. Overcoming Problems or Challenges
  2. Quests (travels for a better life)
  3. Voyage and Return (military service, extended illness)
  4. Rags to Riches (Cinderella stories)
  5. Tragedies
  6. Comedies
  7. Rebirth (someone falls low but fights his or her way back)

Parents and grandparents should know all of these stories themselves so they can pass them on when appropriate.  Good times to tell them are holidays, family reunions, vacations, birthdays, Thanksgiving, etc.

Foundation: Is there such a thing as a “bad story” that shouldn’t be shared out of fear of hindering children’s resilience?

Dr. Duke: There are really bad stories in every family. Sometimes these remain family secrets that die out with the passing of a generation. If there is no “lesson” in a story, it might be left untold. However, bad stories that have good outcomes are excellent ways of building resilience. Bad stories with poor outcomes can also teach kids that sometimes things don’t come out well but we need to be able to deal with bad things and move forward.

Foundation: Do you have any words of wisdom to share with families who find it challenging to have these kind of open conversations with their children and/or grandchildren?

Dr. Duke: It may be hard to share some stories that are disquieting. However, I encourage parents and grandparents to keep in mind that an awareness that he or she belongs to a family that is strong enough to withstand even terrible things can make children very strong themselves, without their needing to actually re-experience hardship personally. This is a good thing.

Foundation: What do you see to be the connection between resilience and philanthropy?

Dr. Duke: Families that are resilient quickly realize that their resilience is not the result of themselves alone, but that they were able to bounce back because of the friends they have and the community resources that were available to them. Hospitals, schools, religious institutions, city emergency services, etc. all engender gratitude for what they do to help people. Supporting organizations that helped one’s own family assures that others will be helped.

The family legacy that supporting one’s community is a fundamental “good” can only be taught by example. What children see their grandparents do, they will do. Also, people who support worthy organizations are doing something for future generations that earlier generations did for them. We don’t always see the impact of what we do, but we always experience the impact of what those long gone have done for us. Stories help us make connections between the two.

Foundation: Sometimes it is helpful to read a good book for inspiration. Are there any books you would recommend about the importance of sharing stories and developing a family narrative? 

Dr. Duke: I like “The Gathering” by Ann Enright, but there are so many great ones!