Family Stories and Myths
Functions Of Family Stories And Myths
Storytelling fulfills many functions in the family. First, stories differentiate a particular family from all other families. The idiosyncratic nature of family stories underscores, in a way invariably clear to the members of a particular family, the essentials of being a part of that family (Stone 1988; Zeitlin, Kotkin, and Baker 1982).
Family stories also help bind the members of the family together by creating a community of memory, a chronicle of the way a particular family thinks of itself. Family stories define the family as a unit that encounters numerous transitions together over time (e.g. stories about marriage, family feuds, the welcoming of children into the family fold, and tragic losses). This is called the transition principle in family stories (Zeitlin, Kotkin, and Baker 1982). Furthermore, family stories describe "the decorum and protocol of family life—what we are and to whom, what we can expect and from whom, in time and or in money or emotion" (Stone 1988, p. 18). They also enrich the perspectives family members have regarding intergenerational relationships (Zeitlin, Kotkin, and Baker 1982).
Monica Nalyaka Wanambisi of Kenya explains that for her family storytelling is a tool that promotes a sense of communal belonging (Burman 1997). Elaine Reese (1996) supports this idea of stories promoting a sense of communal belonging. The New Zealander Pakeha (European descent) mothers she interviewed viewed birth narratives as a way of introducing their children into their space and the wider family community.
Although most families tell stories, there are some who do not. Michael Sherman (1990) found that when there is an absence of family stories, it led to difficulties for parents' establishment of a comfortable relationship with their child. This is because family stories and myths enable individual family members to make sense of the world and simplify the complexities of family life into an easily remembered, easily communicated narrative (Bagarozzi and Anderson 1982; Zeitlin, Kotkin, and Baker 1982).
Families without stories may have difficulty because stories help relay family values and ideals and thus provide expectations of family members. When analyzing stories of gay, lesbian, and bisexual families, Colette Morrow (1999) found that the stories told by lesbian, bisexual, and gay families had two competing descriptions of sexual identity—one of sexuality as a result of destiny and one of sexuality as a result of free will. This may have been because queer theorists see sexuality as constructed whereas gay political activists legitimize their demands for civil rights by saying sexual identity is biologically determined. Their stories met the demands of both groups.
Family stories function to pass on gender identity. Barbara Fiese and Gemma Skillman (2001) found that sons were more likely to hear stories with themes of autonomy than were daughters. This was especially true of children whose parent adhered to the traditional gender prescriptions. These parents told stories with stronger achievement themes to their sons whereas nontraditional gender-typed parents told stories with stronger achievement themes to their daughters.
In addition to transmitting gender identity, family stories and myths shape the personalities of individual family members. Steven Zeitlin, Amy Kotkin, and Holly Baker (1982) labeled this notion the character principle of family stories. Families are complicated, especially in their messages to the individuals who comprise them. Powerful messages about who each person in the family is, what each member is to do, and how each life is to be lived are transmitted through the medium of family stories and myths. In other words, these stories serve as the family's most important instructions (and perhaps covert ground rules) for its members on what they ought to be like. The nature of the family definition of each individual and the stories used to buttress that definition give clues to the family's organization and its power center.
Finally, family stories are interpretive. They offer guidance, based on the collective experience of the family, to individual members as they make sense of the world outside the family. Every family has a vision of what the world is like and a set of implicit and explicit rules for survival. Family stories provide its members a sense of place or position in the larger social world beyond the family (Stone 1988).
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