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The Stories That Bind Our Families

Sarah Stevenson
By Sarah StevensonOctober 14, 2013

Studies show that there’s strength in our stories: Putting together an oral family history can bring family members together and strengthen the ties between generations.

There are a myriad of reasons why it’s important to keep the lines of communication open from generation to generation, but the latest research on that score might surprise you. By now, it’s a no-brainer that we should be discussing genetic health factors with our parents and grandparents, and plenty of people are family-tree enthusiasts, exploring their ancestry online and in libraries. And, of course, we all know someone who is a scrapbooking nut, collecting family photos and ephemera for posterity. But an oral family history? Beyond the quality time spent together, there are a lot of uniquely beneficial outcomes to sharing intergenerational knowledge in a direct, person-to-person way.

Family History Translates Into Stronger Family Bonds and Life Successes

Recent studies show that children who have more knowledge of their family history also tend to show greater emotional resilience, facing stress and challenges more effectively. Researchers from Emory University asked children questions from a “Do You Know?” Scale—questions like “Do you know how your parents met?” and “Do you know where some of you grandparents grew up?” and the results showed some surprising correlations when it came to facing life’s challenges. Even the researchers were blown away: “The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned,” reports the New York Times.

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It turns out that our self-confidence is related to our sense of belonging to something larger than ourselves—an “intergenerational self,” as psychologist Marshall Duke put it in the Times article. Family traditions, stories, myths, rituals—even those silly Thanksgiving bonding activities—all of these convey a sense of family history. Sharing and retelling positive moments also strengthens family bonds in the immediate term. Collecting an oral family history can help you and your loved ones tap into these benefits—and it will create a living legacy for everyone to enjoy for generations to come.

What is Oral Family History?

According to the Oral History Association, oral history gathers voices and personal memories of individuals and communities in the form of video or audio recorded interviews. It’s one of the oldest methods of preserving human history, as well as personal and family memories. For those looking to document their family history, it can preserve the voices and images of your loved ones in archival form, as well as their stories about their lives, their upbringing, and important events.

Tips on Starting an Oral Family History Project

Embarking on a quest to record your loved ones’ memories of their lives is rewarding, but if you want to get the most out of it and make it something that truly lasts, you’ll want to set down a solid plan at the beginning. Some of the tips suggested by the American Folklife Center include:

  • Determine the goals of the project—why you want to undertake it, what topics you plan to explore, and what you plan to do with the results
  • Learn about the process of a typical oral history project
  • Set the scope of the project—the duration, location, number of people
  • Conduct preliminary research: Who has the information you need? Has someone else in the family already done some research? Do you need to learn about specific subjects (e.g., World War II) to ask more effective questions?
  • Determine who will work on the project
  • Get practical details in order like equipment, budget, timetable, and funding
  • Learn about the process of professional and effective interviewing

Even if it sounds like a dry topic, that last bullet point gets at the heart of the matter. If you want to create lasting memories and preserve dynamic recordings of your older loved ones, you’ll want to learn all about family history interviews. The American Folklife Center has a great set of interviewing tips, and the Johnstown Area Heritage Association has some lists of questions to get you started. There is also helpful advice on interviewing and recording equipment on the UCLA Center for Oral History Research website. With the right planning, interviewing your loved ones can help them relive treasured memories, help you preserve the history of your ancestry, and help bring the entire family closer together.

Have you done any research into your family through oral history interviews? What is the greatest benefit you’ve experienced, or the most interesting thing you’ve learned? Share your experiences in the comments below.

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Sarah Stevenson
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Sarah Stevenson
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