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This week brings the return of large, in-person family gatherings after a two-year hiatus. On Friday night, millions of Jews will gather for Passover seders; on Sunday, tens of millions of Christians will gather for Easter dinners. Many people will use their good china for the first time this decade; many more will find that their nicest clothes don’t fit quite as well as they used to. (For tips on losing the Covid-15 that many people gained during Covid-19, see my recent post, “Spring Cleaning for Your Mind.”)
During this long spell of Zoom assemblies, the national conversation around families has been dominated by two questions: 1) Is it even safe to gather? 2) What do you do with those relatives with whom you disagree—about lockdowns, about vaccines, about politics, about Britney Spears?
The messaging has been quite consistent—and quite dour: Family just isn’t worth it anymore. You’re better off staying home—with your own kind, in your bubble, among those who share your views.
At the risk of starting a family fight: This idea is dangerous and wrongheaded.
As far back as 1970, scholars began codifying the benefits of being in a family. Peter Heller, then a professor at Madison College, introduced a concept he called familism to counter the supposed benefits of individualism. “Familism is a form of social organization in which the interests of the individual are subordinated to those of the family group.”
In a comprehensive study nearly forty years later called “Family Relationships and Well-Being,” Patricia Thomas, a professor in the Center on Aging and the Life Course at Purdue University, along with Hui Liu of Michigan State and Debra Umberson of the University of Texas, reviewed a generation of research on families and happiness. "For better and for worse,” they concluded, “family relationships play a central role in shaping an individual’s well-being across the life course.”
Family connections provide a greater sense of meaning and purpose, the researchers found; supply more robust social support; and enrich health by reducing stress, boosting optimism, and enhancing self-esteem. When was the last time you read those benefits in the mainstream media?
But there’s one specific benefit of family gatherings in particular that I have almost never read about in the popular press and that is directly relevant to the heart of what we talk about on The Nonlinear Life: how to tell stories.
That idea is co-narration.
Family meals have long been a concentration of study for sociologists. Researchers have recorded tens of thousands of family dinners, then coded them and analyzed them. Every you know, um, and like hasd been tallied. A big focus of these studies is who does the talking—and why.
Scholars have identified three types of family conversations over meals—monologic, in which one person talks; dialogic, in which two people talk; and polyphonic, in which three or more people talk. Sometimes those additional talkers have to interrupt the first one to get their voices heard. Wait, that’s not what happened! Hey, you forget the best part! Far from destructive, these types of interruptions not only help the story; they help the family, too.
As Shoshana Blum-Kulka, a professor of sociolinguistics at the Hebrew, University writes in her book, Dinner Talk, a “multiplicity of voices at the level of telling can also transform relations between tellers.” Instead of being merely audience members, the other family members at the table become “fellow performers.” The act of co-narration--or co-creation--“binds” these individuals to one another and deepens their “emotional connection.”
This type of collaborative storytelling, which works perfectly well descriving a run-of-the-mill trip to the playground or the museum, works especially well for familiar, even ritualistic stories, like the ones many families will share this weekend at Passover seders and Easter dinners. As Neal Norrick at Northern Illinois University writes, these twice-told tales “foster group rapport, ratify group membership, and convey group values.”
The key for parents or any leader of these conversations is to make sure adults don’t dominate over children, and that older children don’t dominate over younger children. The more people who participate in the co-telling of the story, the better the story will be.
And the better the family will be.
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