All children need to hear family stories, including adopted children.
All children need to hear family stories, including adopted children.

Last month, I read a great article, “The Stories That Bind Us“, in the This Life column of the New York Times. The author, Bruce Feiler, reported research that found that “the single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.”

Importance of Family Stories in Building Self Esteem

Researchers developed a test they called the “Do You Know?” scale that asked children 20 questions about their family history—grandparents’ lives, parents’ pre-kid life, birth stories, etc.. They found that “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. The “Do You Know?” scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.” Scientists think that children’s sense of being part of a larger ongoing family contributed to their sense of well-being.

Fascinating! In this day of spread out families with grandparents often living thousands of miles away, it occurred to me that I would have to be proactive at sharing these stories since my kids wouldn’t necessarily pick them up through the osmosis of living. I loved the idea that something as simple and fun as regaling my kids with family history and stories could help immunize them from the ills and blows of life. (Now, getting my teens to listen to my regaling is a whole other issue since all except one of my kids seem to be convinced that all life began at their birth.)

Does Adoption Complicate the Telling of Family Stories

In the Motherlode column of the NYT the following week,  K. J. Dell’Antonia’s essay exploring the perils of sharing family stories when you have a family created by birth and adoption struck a cord.

We adopted my youngest daughter from China when she was nearly 4. Before she lived with us, she lived happily with her foster parents there, and we are fortunate enough to know them and to know the details of her history. …[F]or our youngest daughter, [family stories] are complex stories of loss and eventual gain; of leaving a family she did not want to leave and gaining a family she did not much want at the time. Her love for us now only makes it more complicated.

Other stories are hard for her to hear as well: the stories of our family history after she was born but before she was part of our family. And so many of the phrases that go with these stories — the things that “run in our family” or the ways someone is “just like Grandpa” — are loaded in adoptive families. We say them just the same, and distribute them equally (nurture counts).

Del’Antonia’s word resonated with me. My family is also formed by birth and adoption. I too am keenly aware that I can only tell the birth story and early infancy tales of some of my kids. Without really meaning for it to happen, over the years, I tell those stories for my children by birth less often. And as Del’Antonia said, resemblance stories are also more complicated. Interestingly, I don’t shy away from these stories, I suppose because, like Del’Antonia’s family, nurture has bestowed similarities amongst my crew regardless of genes.

Has adoption altered how you tell your family tales?

Image credit: Wickenden