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Family Folklore

Functions And Values Of Folklore For Family Relationships

Margaret Yocom (1997) mentions that L. Karen Baldwin called families the social base for folklore. There is a difference, however, between families as the social base for folklore and folklore as the social and expressive base for families. The Zeitlin collection of U.S. family folklore and other works suggest that traditional expressions serve key functions in establishing and maintaining family relationships and values. Zeitlin and his colleagues (1992) indicate that families select images and traits that match their beliefs to perpetuate as traditions. Families use these traditions to present themselves to themselves, to characterize each other, and to note important transitional events as they memorialize the family. Selecting who can and cannot appear in a family photograph, for example, demonstrates the boundaries of the group. Both Danielson (1994) and Yocom (1997) emphasize defining family is variable and that dysfunctional and untraditional families, households, and committed relationships should be included in family lore studies. Toelken (1996) discusses immediate families; horizontal families of cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents; vertical families of ancestors; and ethnic families from larger dynamic units that family members affiliate with. Toelken also asserts that traditional expressions develop a family sense of "us" that is distinguishable from other groups. Because family often is the first group a person knows, the habits and assumptions acquired through family traditions shape perception and experience in profound ways. Most people require belonging to a group and the stability of the familiar and the intrigue of the unfamiliar as traditions are repeated and altered.

Folklorist William Bascom (1965) identifies four functions of folklore that also work in the family folk group. He asserts that folklore serves to (1) amuse, (2) validate culture, (3) educate, and (4) maintain conformity. Families retell stories and celebrate holidays and events because they are entertained by their lore and by each other. Bascom notes that there usually is more than amusement going on when folklore is being performed. He acknowledges that some traditions invite fantasy and creativity, allowing people to imagine living in a better situation or escaping the limitations of life and death. However, these fantasies often release tension to prepare group members to accept or adapt to their life situations. Moreover, if family members question how things actually are, often there is a tradition to validate what the family stands for and to indicate how members should behave. Stone recounts the story of a blond, blue-eyed family that told stories about failed marriages with dark-haired men. To perpetuate the family as a unit over space and time, often traditions will validate previous behaviors and attitudes even if other options are appealing or even more viable. Traditions thus have a function to educate, primarily to instruct on how to act and live. Bascom notes from his research in Africa that children in nonliterate societies primarily are taught by stories, sayings, and ceremonies. Families can use traditions to teach appropriate behavior and to gently or openly reprimand members for making unacceptable decisions. Finally, Bascom asserts that folklore will be used as an "internalized check on behavior" to encourage conformity to group values. Although Bascom sees folklore performances as maintaining the status quo, traditions also can be altered to allow families to recognize themselves in spite of new attitudes or circumstances.

Family members come to know each other as performers of particular stories or customs, and they often relate to each other by deferring to the person who best knows the tradition. Toelken (1996) calls this "traditional deference," noting that often many family members know how to perform a tradition but allow or expect one person to be the primary performer. Although seldom a formal process of selection, traditional deference occurs with respect for age, ability, interest, or custom itself. Sometimes when the primary performer becomes incapable of continuing the tradition, others can readily step in to make the baskets, organize the holiday celebration, or tell the joke. Other times, the tradition has become so associated with one person that it must be radically altered or can no longer be practiced when that person is no longer available. The willing and easy sharing of traditions among family members can be a source of pride and unity, but disagreements over heirlooms or other invisible traits may indicate strained areas of family relationships. Although associating stories or artifacts with particular family members may cause contention, the informal distribution of traditional performances among family members can enhance identity, esteem, and bonding. Family folklore helps members relate to each other, know each other's moods and talents, and learn how to adapt relationships when changes occur.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily & Marriage TraditionsFamily Folklore - Functions And Values Of Folklore For Family Relationships, International Scholarship And Applications Of Family Folklore