Our family story, the narrative we tell one another about ourselves, our shared history, is a critical component of family health, as well as a solid predictor of collective and individual success. Stories build togetherness by communicating family culture, values and examples of support far better than simply expressing such ideas in words. Individuals internalize a connection to something larger than themselves, leading to more emotional strength and a broader worldview. The family stories capture past struggles and successes, transitions and traditions. Tangible objects can become both the inspiration and the symbol of the family story. These “story objects” have a unique power to transfer values, ideas and emotions between generations, and that realization yields two important implications. First, families and family advisors should contemplate the role of these objects in intergenerational transitions to avoid surprises, conflict and possible litigation. Second, these objects can be used to pro-actively transfer values and traditions between generations. Let’s look at two stories highlighting the issues around objects and family story and why it matters to families and family advisors.
Develop Strong Family Narrative
A recent piece by Bruce Fieler in the New York Times on the topic of family stories featured the research by Dr. Marshall Duke at Emory University. Dr. Duke has found a direct relationship between shared family knowledge and family health. His work leads Fieler to make this assertion: “The last few years have seen stunning breakthroughs in knowledge about how to make families, along with other groups, work more effectively. The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.”1 Those stories about how grandma came to this country with no money and struggled as a cleaning lady matter. This isn’t mere nostalgia. Rather, this is how values are transferred between generations in conversations over the dinner table or driving to soccer games.
As family stories are experienced, then told and re-told, objects become related emotionally and symbolically to the family story. John Gillis describes the modern home as a place where “we gather our significant others, or, in their absence, their photos, mementos, and other cherished objects that connect us to them on the symbolic level. They speak to us, and we to them.”2 Objects become part of the story and are imbued with an emotional value far beyond the economic value. This process creates a uniquely problematic area in traditional estate planning. Story objects may be simply ignored as the mundane objects of daily use, failing to rise to the level of significance for the planning process. Alternatively, when objects of material value are included in the process, the emotional value may create problems of perceived fairness. These story objects aren’t universally or consistently valued across all members of the family. A couple of real-life stories can highlight the issues we need to address as a family or as family advisors.
Toy Train Derails Family
A recent lunch conversation with a prominent estate attorney turned to a story of a train derailment. Not an actual train derailment, but the story of how a toy train set derailed a family. Their story goes like this: A family becomes embroiled in a contentious battle over the father’s estate. The issue at hand is the proper ownership of the father’s train set. Unable to resolve the dispute with discussion, argument or mediation, the family members each hired lawyers and turned to the courts for resolution. In an effort to understand the magnitude of the issue, the family member who’s in possession of the train set is ordered to bring it to court.
Now, we might imagine the type of train set which can illicit this sort of passionate battle. Perhaps we’re talking about an original 1900 Lionel Electric Express, one of only 12 ever made. Or maybe we’re talking about a complete scale model of the California coastline, complete with trains traveling through a tunnel in a model redwood. No, sadly the train set was brought in to the courtroom thrown into a box willy-nilly, tracks sticking out here, dusty and rusted engine stick out there. Described by one witness to the case as “something you might buy for ten bucks at a rummage sale,” yet the damage being done to the family was terrible costly.
A Treasured Spoon
A conversation with my colleague about the toy train battle lead to a very different type of story. On the passing of her grandmother, she and the other grandchildren were given an opportunity to claim different mementos from her home that hadn’t otherwise been gifted. My colleague chose a spoon. A spoon so worn by use it was really just half a spoon. My colleague’s grandmother had used this metal spoon to stir a pot, gently boiling way on a stovetop for years of family meals. A simple, powerful symbol of dedication, loyalty and love. This spoon has become one of her most treasured possessions. She can’t understand how anyone in her family hadn’t claimed I and treasured it, the way she does today.
Implications to Consider
These two stories are representative of thousands of similar stories shared by families and family advisors, and the implications are important to consider. First, we must recognize the value of story objects in sharing values and traditions. We can use these objects to symbolically pass on these values when we’re aware of their power. Secondly, we must recognize the importance of a story object differs greatly based on the circumstances of each child or grandchild. At different ages, each of them experienced different aspects of the family story and internalized different values. Differences in gender may impact which objects matter. And differences in relationship, for example, father to son, mother to daughter or grandparent to grandchild, all have different implications. Each of these differences highlights the need to actively engage in conversations about story objects in advance. We must ask one another about what matters. Don’t assume a child values grandfather’s hat in the same way you do or that all children feel the same way about the same object. These conversations are often surprising, illuminating and heartfelt. Finally, we have to plan around story objects to guide towards a more ideal outcome. This may not be formal estate planning, but it must be thoughtful and intentional.
It may be a train set, a spoon or a hat. It may be forgotten, overlooked or deemed unimportant. But as Kathy Miller, a visiting professor at Arizona State University, captured the idea: “Objects have heft. We can touch their surface, feel their weight. Objects have purpose. They do things that shape lives and events. Though not all objects survive, even those that don’t have a place in our memory very different from words and images.”3 We have an opportunity to engage in the conversation around what objects have meaning for our family. For families and family advisors, we must at least attempt to address these story objects to avoid contentious issues later and perhaps build a more positive outcome for our families. And in doing so, we give these objects new purpose, and we give our family a shared story.
- Bruce Fieler, “The Stories That Bind Us”, New York Times (March 15, 2013).
See also work by Marshall Duke, PhD. And Robyn Fivush, PhD., specifically the published work available at Family Narratives Lab at Emory University: www.psychology.emory.edu/cognition/fivush/lab/FivushLabWebsite/Publications.html.
- John R. Gillis, “Our Imagined Families: The Myths and Rituals We Live By”, The Emory Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life, Working Paper No. 7 (February 2002).
- “Kathy Miller, “The Objects of Family History,” https://kathyim.wordpress.com/2014/09/30/the-objects-of-family-history/.