Family Stories and Myths

views updated

Family Stories and Myths

Humans are storytelling beings who, personally and collectively, lead storied lives. The study of stories provides insight into how individuals and families experience the world. Storytelling takes place in families whenever they come together, during ordinary activities such as mealtime and at special occasions such as holiday celebrations and funerals.

Definition of Family Stories and Myths

As raw experiences are transformed into stories, myths, customs, rituals, and routines, they are codified in forms that can be easily recollected (Martin, Hagestad, and Diedrick 1988; Zeitlin, Kotkin, and Baker 1982). Elizabeth Stone (1988, p. 5) observed: "Almost any bit of lore about a family member or experience qualifies as a family story—as long as it is significant and has worked its way into the family canon to be told and retold."

The family canon is the creative expression of a common history transformed into stories for the present and future generations. These stories are as likely to be about the "black sheep" in the family as they are to be about those who led exemplary lives. Despite the fact that the main character is often a man, women in the families are the primary keepers of the canon (Diedrick, Martin, and Hagestad 1986; Martin, Hagestad, and Diedrick 1988; Stone 1988).

Family stories, as with all stories, are told after the fact. This is important because each family can be selective about the events or incidents it chooses to remember and preserve. Steven Zeitlin, Amy Kotkin, and Holly Baker (1982, p. 16) noted that "in this way, each narrative becomes not a rehash of an event but a distillation of experience" unique to each family.

Family myths are the most secret and intimate genre of storytelling. They offer "an explanation and justification of family members' roles, self-images, and shared consensual experience" (Anderson and Bagarozzi 1983, p. 153). Family myths communicate the most idiosyncratic family convictions that families are most reticent to surrender (Stone 1988).

The power of family stories that are allegorical in nature, may be due to the context in which they are told. Elizabeth Stone explains:

Families believe in their myths for reasons more compelling than respect for versatility of metaphor. What the family tells us has a force and power that we never quite leave behind. What they tell us is our first syntax, our first grammar, the foundation onto which we later add our own perceptions and modifications. We are not entirely free to challenge the family's beliefs as we might challenge any other system of belief. And even when we do challenge, we half disbelieve ourselves. (1988, p. 101)

Myths and stories are meant to offer possible, if not always plausible, explanations for emotional calamities within the family (Stone 1988). They are a blend of fact and fiction preserving important themes, special events, and notable personalities in the history of each family (Anderson and Bagarozzi 1983; Bagarozzi and Anderson 1982). However, to family members, "veracity is never the main point—what's important is what could be rather than what actually was." (Stone 1988, p. 129).

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).


Metaphors are embedded in family stories and myths. These metaphors supply meaning for relationships and the relational culture. Leslie Baxter identified four different metaphors dating couples have regarding marriage:

  1. Marriage as work-exchange (marriage involves effort and coordination);
  2. Marriage as journey-organisms (marriage is an ever changing process of growth);
  3. Marriage as force-danger (marriage is a risky undertaking; you can be hurt, you have limited control);
  4. Marriage as game (marriage has a winner and a loser).

Understanding the metaphor used by one's spouse is important because research has shown that those who share similar metaphors toward marriage are more compatible versus those with different metaphors.

Metaphors have also been examined by family counselors. Because the metaphors in reoccurring stories or arguments are often representations of the family's problems, it is believed that if the counselor can help the family change the metaphor, he or she can help the family change (Yerby, Buerkel-Rothfuss, and Bochner 1990).

Using Family Stories as a Research Tool

Family stories and myths are difficult to quantify according to the scientific paradigm (Bruner 1987; Connelly and Clandinin 1990; Reason and Hawkins 1988). This difficulty in quantification is one reason why there has been little research by social scientists. Family therapists, literature and folklore scholars, and others more inclined toward qualitative methods have produced most of what is known about the salience of myths and stories to contemporary family life. Their research has done much to explicate the subtle yet important dynamics at the heart of family interaction.

See also:Communication: Family Relationships; Family and Relational Rules; Family Folklore; Family Rituals; Gender Identity; Intergenerational Relations; Relationship Metaphors


Anderson, S., and Bagarozzi, D. (1983). "The Use of Family Myths as an Aid to Strategic Therapy." Journal of Family Therapy 5:145–154.

Bagarozzi, D., and Anderson, S. (1982). "The Evolution of Family Mythological Systems: Considerations for Meaning, Clinical Assessment, and Treatment." Journal of Psychoanalytic Anthropology 5:71–90.

Bruner, J. (1987). "Life as Narrative." Social Research 54:11–32.

Burman, J. (1997). IWP Addresses Kids' Literature. Spectator, Spring, 10.

Connelly, F., and Clandinin, D. (1990). "Stories of Experience and Narrative Inquiry." Educational Researchers 19:2–14.

Diedrick, P.; Martin, P.; and Hagestad, G. (1986). "Gender Differences as Reflected in Family Stories." ERIC Document Reproduction Service #ED279929. Washington, DC: ERIC Document Reproduction Service.

Fiese, B. H., and Skillman, G. (2001). "Gender Differences in Family Stories: Moderating Influence of Parent Gender Role and Child Gender." Sex Roles 43(5–6):267–283.

Martin, P.; Hagestad, G.; and Diedrick, P. (1988). "Family Stories: Events (Temporarily) Remembered." Journal of Marriage and the Family 50:533–541.

Morrow, C. (1999). "Family Values/Valued Families: Storytelling and Community Formation among LBG Families with Children." Journal of Gay, Lesbian, and Bi-Sexual Identity 4(4):345–356.

Reason, P., and Hawkins, P. (1988). "Storytelling as Inquiry." In Human Inquiry in Action, ed. P. Reason. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Reese, E. (1996). "Conceptions of Self in Mother-Child Birth Stories." Journal of Narrative and Life History 6(1):23–38.

Sherman, M. H. (1990). "Family Narratives: Internal Representations of Family Relationships and Affective Themes." Infant Mental Health Journal 11(3):253–258.

Stone, E. (1988). Black Sheep and Kissing Cousins. New York: Times Books.

Yerby, J.; Buerkel-Rothfuss, N.; and Bochner, A. P. (1990). Understanding Family Communication, 2nd edition. Scottsdale, AZ: Gorsuch Scarisbuck.

Zeitlin, S.; Kotkin, A.; and Baker, H. (1982). A Celebration of American Family Folklore. New York: Pantheon.

james j. ponzetti, jr. yvonne kellar-guenther