Telling Family Stories If You Have Kids by Birth & Adoption

Dawn Davenport


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

23/04/2013 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog | 5 Comments

5 Responses to Telling Family Stories If You Have Kids by Birth & Adoption

  1. Pingback: November is National Family Stories Month

  2. Kathryn Hughes Kathryn Hughes says:

    I loved that article too. Wrote to the researchers and asked if they had done any work looking at family narrative and adoptees, and they said they hadn’t yet. I hope they do at some point. That’d be great to read, though I think this is quite relevant as it stands.

    It just makes sense to me that family stories help create that sense of identity and how they could help people integrate the different sides of themselves and their experiences. It ties in so closely to that story Joyce Pavao shares in her book about the native Hawaiian gentleman singing his name at the conference. Both his biological and adoptive families coming together in him and that becoming a part of how he views himself and relates to the world. That’s anecdotal, but at a recent conference I attended, some work out of the MTARP study relating to openness and a sense of identity was highlighted, and that also seems to reinforce the message that narratives and family stories play a strong role in development of identities.

    The way each person develops and interacts with those stories will be unique, so for the balance between biological and adopted kids in one family, I’d guess that supporting the idea that the family narratives, nice and complex and messy as they may be, are all equally valid. Also trying to make sure, just like ye good olde education research also says (I think..been a while), that facts and events are linked to a story and not left floating out in in mental and emotional space seems like it might be a good approach? First telling the story to a child, then letting the child tell the story so you can hear them build and weave their narrative?

    Yeah, OK, I’m saying this, but I really don’t have a practical sense of how that works. My daughter is tiny and an only at the moment. But by god that won’t stop me rambling! Looking forward to seeing what others with actual experience have to say.

  3. Avatar Egg Timer says:

    What an interesting post. Just dropping by from ICLW and like most people on this journey I have no idea what our family will look like… it could come through adoption or birth or a combination of the two.

  4. I think our family identity is totally connected to our stories. I plan on playing the Do You Know game with them when the college guys get home this summer. I worry after reading that article that perhaps we haven’t told enough grandparent stories.

  5. Good morning! I stumbled across this post and cannot agree with you more! Just yesterday, I gave an interview to a local newspaper reporter and she asked,”Why did you write this book?” I answered,”To give my adopted son roots.” I have a biological son and an adopted son. Their stories and lineage and characteristics are unique (nature) and shared (nurture). I penned a narrative non-fiction memoir to address the sorrows of infertility, the rigors of adoption, the navigation of an open adoption, and the joy of parenting biological AND adopted children. My book is THE EYE OF ADOPTION: the true story of my turbulent wait for a baby. I am getting GREAT reviews, so I think I must have honored others’ journeys by telling my story. Those of you who are connected to this blog, I urge you to read my book. It is on in paperback and Kindle versions. Also, I offer free downloads, so like my FB page: THE EYE OF ADOPTION or visit my website for notifications of free Kindle downloads. God bless you all and your families!

    Jody Cantrell Dyer

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