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Transferring Values Via Storytelling – An Opportunity Over the Holidays

28Dec 2008

A much talked about issue in the area of wealth transfer and family business succession is the desire to “transfer our values to the next generations”.  This is a valiant goal and one which should be true for every family regardless of wealth status — training your children and grandchildren in ways that they will instill values that are important to you.  Really, the heart of the matter is not just to teach them values which are important to you, but to teach them principles and ways of thinking that will help them be successful in life.

“Values”, after all, are ultimately relative — and I would argue that some values are more ‘valuable’ in life than others.  For example, the values of “appearing successful” or “having others think well of you” can actually lead to choices and patterns of behavior that can become self-destructive.  Whereas the values of “treating others with dignity” and “conducting all business matters with utmost integrity” are principles for behavior that I believe are more foundational and will lead to positive results in one’s life.

Many families are enamored with the idea of creating a list of their family’s core values and / or developing a family mission statement (most families, I believe, are interested in doing this because they’ve heard it is something they should do if they are going to be a successful family).  And I think these can be helpful action steps within the larger process of actively talking about the family’s core values. [In fact, one of the services I provide professional is to lead families through these processes.]

But a key question I ask families is: “How are values transferred to the next generations?”  The most common answer is — by observation.  And this is true.  Children and grandchildren observe older family members and take cues on how they should behave from them.  But, as I often tell parents of young children — children are excellent observers but they often are poor interpreters.  They watch us and see what we are doing, but they often misinterpret the actions and even more frequently misinterpret the purpose or reason behind the action.  As a result, learning by observation by itself is a poor teacher.

Modeling behavior (including choices made, and the values which they represent), I believe, must also be accompanied by verbal explanation — both of what we are doing and also why we are choosing this action.

We have an old family story that one of my grandmothers always cut off the end of a pot roast before putting it in the roasting pan and baking it in the oven.  When asked by her daughter why she did this, she replied: “Because you are supposed to — that is how my mother cooked her pot roast.”  She later found out that her mother cut off the end because her roasting pan was small and the typical roast would not fit in the pan!

Similarly, I believe it is critical for parents and grandparents (and aunts and uncles) to verbal communicate what is important to them and why these beliefs or principles undergird how they live life.  (On the lighter side, the holidays provide a rich opportunity for family members to ask about various family traditions — where they came from and why do we do them?)

An excellent way to share important principles and values is through storytelling.  Although listing principles in bullet form works well in articles and books, that is not typically how we talk conversationally (although some family members who are instructors may say: “Let me tell you three reasons why … First, …  Second, … and finally, ..”  But most of us don’t have to endure such mini-lectures.)

Stories are excellent communicators of values because they have several engaging characteristics:

  • They are personal.
  • They can be quite engaging and entertaining.
  • They use real life examples to show the benefits of good choices and the consequences of poor choices.
  • They (when told by a good storyteller) involve one’s thoughts, emotions, and sensations.
  • They are easily remembered.

This past week our four adult children have been home for the Christmas holiday.  We have attempted to tell various stories about earlier events in our lives — to help them learn (both positively and by our mistakes) from our life experiences.  Additionally, I spent some time with my mother, who grew up during the Great Depression, and asked her to tell me lessons she learned during that time.  In addition to a few principles, she also related a variety of family stories that helped communicate some of the ways our family survived during the Depression (e.g. family members helped one another out).

Most people, when I mention the idea that they should use time together with their family to tell some stories, reply: “Oh, I’m not a good storyteller” or “I wouldn’t know what to talk about.”  So let me give you some ideas for story “starters”.  Talk about:

  • Memories you have about your grandparents — things you used to do with them.
  •   Character qualities or talents you remember about your parents or grandparents.
  •   Something special you remember getting or doing on your birthday when you were growing up.
  •   Vacations you went on as a child and any memorable events that occurred on them.
  •   What Christmas was like when you were little — what were the traditions at your grandparents’ homes?
  •   How you met your spouse; about your dating / courtship / engagement; the early years of your marriage — where did you live, what kind of work did you do?
  •   Some jobs you had when you were younger — including positive lessons and negative experiences.

Another way of approaching the storytelling is to think of values and principles which are core to you, and which you believe would be valuable for your children and grandchildren by which to live their lives (honesty, hard work, frugality, kindness, humility).  Then think of a family member who embodied that value and tell your family a story about that person and how they demonstrated that characteristic.

As we complete this year and look forward to the New Year, and as you have time together with family, I’d like to encourage you to actively think how you can teach them something of value — tell them a story that will help them learn valuable ways of living.

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