Christmas season at our house is a time for gathering family members together and recounting favorite tales from our shared past. These stories continue to be enjoyed year after year and serve an important purpose in teaching our children about our family.
One of our favorite Christmas stories took place one year while my wife was Relief Society president. Due to company layoffs in our small town, many ward members faced financial hardship. With the bishop’s guidance, plans were made to provide gifts for needy families, and our family was delighted to take part. On the night before Christmas, we wrapped baskets and packages to be delivered to designated ward members. Because we wanted to remain unseen, we carried our gifts to each door, rang the doorbell, then ran and hid. We were nearly discovered a number of times, and now, years later, our teenage children love to retell how we made these escapes without being detected. The story serves as a reminder of a time when we gave anonymous service, a value we continue to cherish.
Family stories shape our lives in subtle yet powerful ways. They are part of the cultural and spiritual heritage we pass on to our children. Because family stories are typically told in a casual manner, children are likely to intuitively accept the unspoken messages they contain. I remember as a small boy hearing my grandfather tell about his grandfather, Jonathon C. Wright, who walked with his family across the American plains to the Salt Lake Valley. Stories of his struggles, sacrifices, and faith made an indelible impression on me.
Passing on our family’s heritage and traditions to our children through beloved stories sends important messages about our family’s historical beginnings, our family’s values, our way of facing adversity, and our ability to be helpful and understanding with one another. Children never tire of listening to these tales year after year.
Just as every individual has a sense of his or her own identity, so every family has a unique identity that can be passed along through stories. By understanding the family’s historical beginnings, children learn what it means to be part of an extended family and what their roles are within that family. Stories about family origins and early customs can be fascinating to young people.
Children especially rely on courtship stories to explain the origin of their own family unit and to convey important information about romantic love, such as how it is recognized and how people behave while courting. If the story reveals a sense of inevitable destiny, a feeling of grand forces that brought Mom and Dad together in spite of all odds, the children are more likely to respect the sanctity and importance of marriage and to find security in knowing the depth of their parents’ love and devotion.
One of our favorite stories is about my mother-in-law, Faye Longhurst. When Faye was 17, her mother died. She had two older sisters who were hearing-impaired and two younger brothers, so Faye assumed the role of surrogate mother for the entire family. She cared for the family, subordinating her own life for the family’s welfare. Then one day Faye announced to her father that she wanted to leave the family farm and go to college. Her father disapproved. She went anyway. While in the city, Faye not only earned her degree as a registered nurse, but she also met and married a fine young man.
This courtship story of persistence and independence has become a family legend. While the story is a reminder that family members have obligations to serve and assist one another, it also conveys approval for assuming independence and responsibility for one’s own life after becoming an adult. Without such admirable qualities, my wife’s family would have missed out on its debut in mortality.
Family stories are a primary source for creating shared family values. When stories are told and retold, they become part of our children’s definition of who they are and how they ought to behave.
I like to tell about a time when I was 11 years old. My cousin and I were riding on his horse, Old Pal, along the edge of the road. Out of simple boredom, we pulled open the lids of each mailbox as the horse sauntered down the road. When we got to our neighbor Myron Child’s mailbox, it received the same treatment. But there was something different inside his mailbox. He had left a letter for the postman and enough coins to equal the cost of a postage stamp. We looked at the money, then at each other, then reached down and removed both letter and money from the box.
After pocketing the letter, we dropped by the town’s only gas station and bought sodas at the lunch counter, then went home. My father was waiting for me. Sensing that I was in deep trouble, I confessed quickly. My father led me out the door and back to Myron Child’s home. He waited for me in the street while I stood all alone before our neighbor and confessed to what I’d done. I told Brother Child that my dad expected me to work to repay twice the value of what I’d taken. It took a couple of weekends of mowing the lawn and trimming Brother Child’s hedges to pay the debt.
My children like this story because it shows that although I am a parent now, I was once a child who required discipline. Even more important, the story conveys a traditional family value that we are honest and honorable people. Stories of this kind may provide our children with implicit scripts for making correct choices. These stories say, in essence, This is the kind of family we are.
Listening to family stories teaches children something of what they can expect from living in the world. Stories can show children how their own ancestors coped with adversity or made difficult decisions.
My wife’s father, Neal, tells about a time as a teenager when, on a sweltering summer day, he was riding a favorite horse up the mountainside on his way to swim in a pond. The horse was spooked by a rabbit and sidestepped into a gopher hole. Neal’s right foot was crushed when the horse stumbled and rolled on him. Rehabilitation was painful, and my father-in-law never completely recovered from the injury. With great effort, however, he learned to walk again. As a result, Neal had to give up many activities, so he turned to new ones that didn’t require constant foot speed. He became a champion tennis player by hugging the baseline and wearing down his opponents. Boxing, too, provided an outlet because determination proved more valuable than speed.
This story of Grandfather Neal is retold often when we want to teach our children about the importance of persistence or adaptation when meeting life’s challenges. They learn that it is possible to work toward a good life even when faced with difficult setbacks.
My children enjoy hearing stories from my childhood of when events did not always turn out well for me. Seeing that their parents, too, have experienced problems and feelings similar to theirs helps my children trust in my ability to listen to them with understanding.
When my daughter Kristen was not selected for the junior high dance team and her two friends were, she was very disappointed. She didn’t want to talk about it at all or ever again try out for another school activity. Unsure what I could say to her, I told her of a time in junior high school when I was the last person cut from the school baseball team. So I went out for track. In my first long-distance event, I was so far behind that the first-place winner crossed the finish line when I still had a full lap to run. As I ran past the bleachers where my coach sat watching, he suggested I drop out of the race. Instead, I finished it. I never did win a race, but I never gave up trying.
Telling that story to my daughter helped create an opportunity for her to talk about her own disappointment. A door between us opened, and we were able to share together the hurt that can come from life’s disappointments.
Family stories such as these can bring comfort and closeness to family members. As Christmas approaches and loved ones gather together, many families can take this opportunity to teach children about their beginnings, their traditions and values, and the importance of facing up to life’s difficult challenges. Telling and retelling favorite family tales may create wonderful opportunities for children, parents, and grandparents to build love and understanding between generations. It’s the kind of Christmas gift that can touch lives for many years to come.