Peace in the Family: Stories and Skills to Build Healthy Families

by Susan Kaplan, M.S.W., M.P.A.

“So nice to know that I am not alone! exclaimed one mother. “Now we can create something that is meaningful to us and not fight about it!”

Earlier in the evening, she had shared with the participating families how explosive struggles between her and her daughter had stopped the planning of a Quinceañara, a rite of passage for teenage girls within the Mexican culture. Angry words, fights within their extended family, and hurt feelings had left them stuck.

Bolivian storyteller Reyna Chambers then shared an inspiring tale about a young man who, after moving from his small village into a “modern” city, learns what cultural traditions are important to keep alive. Following the story, the participants discussed the importance of traditions to family life, how to balance the challenges of modern-day life, and ways to reduce conflict and anger. The mother and daughter left laughing, with a renewed sense of meaning as well as a commitment to move forward with the Quinceañara.

This single mother and her daughter were part of Peace in the Family at Annunciation Catholic School, in Denver, CO. Kindergarten through eighth grade students and their parents had gathered to learn together during this evening interactive family education program. Framed with a community gathering at the opening and closing, this Peace in the Family program built bridges across ages as well as among the Sudanese, Caucasian, English-speaking Hispanics, and Spanish-speaking Mexican participants. At the end, the gym floor creaked loudly as 150 people walked in two concentric circles, shaking the hand of each person opposite them. While they shared a blessing for each other, laughter and smiles filled the room.

Family Education Model

An innovative multicultural and/or interfaith family program, Peace in the Family: Stories and Skills to Build Healthy Families uses the power and wisdom of stories for creating strong and healthy families through peaceful and nonviolent ways. Each interactive session weaves traditional and personal stories shared by professional storytellers with practical skills taught by professional trainers.

Five family sessions and one School Peace Day occurred during the local pilot, serving over 380 people. The community sites ranged from a religious school family education night for B’nai Mitzvot families – a rite of passage for both boys and girls within Jewish tradition; an inter- generational African American community group; low and moderate-income communities; and both public and private schools settings.

Four Critical Building Blocks

This model is based on four healthy building blocks: Rituals and Traditions, Communication, Playing Together, and Restoring Balance. Stories, specific skills, and activities are developed within each building block area, engaging participants in an interactive and informative yet playful family program.

  • Rituals and Traditions build a strong foundation for your family. Strong families have the highest frequency of rituals and traditions – eating dinner together, family celebrations, and rites of passages. These bring closeness and unity to the family. A peaceful atmosphere grows with specific rituals of peace.
  • Communication uses interactions and words to build relationships with one another. How we use words either builds or tears down our relationships. When communicating with compassion and empathy, families develop a stronger connection to each other. In learning to share stories with each other, family members build stronger relationships as they laugh, remember, listen, understand and share their lives.
  • Playing Together nourishes playfulness and release in daily life. Play helps families lighten up and boost their emotional bank accounts. It allows them to escape the trap of daily task- oriented communication by nurturing joy and releasing stress together. Learning how to have fun with respect creates greater cooperation.
  • Restoring Balance solves problems by moving through conflict and anger. Conflict is inevitable; we will disagree at times. Having the skills to navigate through conflict restores balance and gives us an opportunity to build our relationships and solve problems. Getting unstuck helps us to move forward.

These four areas can be presented alone or in various combinations to reflect the time and needs of each site.

Assets & Strengths

These four building blocks represent the Assets or Strength-Based Model for families. Assets Theory is derived from the original research done by The Search Institute (www.searchinstitute.org). They identified 40 developmental external and internal assets that build a healthy family. Peace in the Family building blocks reflect over 30 of these areas, including support, empowerment, boundaries and expectations, constructive use of time, commitment to learning, positive values, social competencies, and positive identity.

Rather than focus on repairing problems, an assets approach acknowledges the strengths and gifts every family brings. Some families have had more opportunities than others to develop their strengths. Building upon these assets, trainers and storytellers provide additional “tools” for their family “tool box”.

Applied Storytelling

One mother of three children commented, “I’ll remember that stubborn wife and husband story because that is me! Now I realize how much I lose when I get angry.”

Applied Skill Building is a term used to reflect evidence-based practices, allowing participants to easily apply a new skill directly in their lives. Applied Storytelling is a term I coined to explain the process of applying stories to one’s Life.

“I learned the power of story in creating connection,” one father noted in his evaluation. As many storytellers already know, listeners often directly apply a story to their lives, such as the “Ah ha!” moment of a new perspective, affirmation of a value or characteristic, inspiration to try a new strategy or avoid a not so effective path, and healing that can occur from a deep sense of connectedness and universality.

Evaluations allowed us to document how individuals experienced the stories and skills we presented in our sessions. Participants felt they were touched by the stories and would directly use the stories as reminders of what skills they wanted to bring alive in their daily family lives. The stories touched their deep longing for a more peaceful family life. The magic was pairing the stories with specific skills, along with the opportunity for everyone to share their personal stories in discussions and activities.

Pulling on the Threads of Story

How do you choose just the right story? Pulling on the Threads of Story, another phrase I coined, describes a deep listening process to our stories. The collaborative team would listen to each story and discern different levels of meaning, themes, and connections. Although storytellers often practice this process, it became a more in-depth progression in a collaborative group. Upon reflection, some stories were decidedly not used because there were mixed or inappropriate messages. The synergy of the group helped storytellers stretch within their own stories.

In all truthfulness, it was a luxury to work up stories and match them with specific skills. Laughter, tension, a rich exchange of ideas, and a freshness was generated in our collaborative team meetings as we expanded our relationships to our story, each other, the specific skills we hoped to teach, and the community to whom we were presenting.

Systems Theory and Storytelling

The parts are important to the whole, as the whole is important to each part. Rather than viewing the individual person as distinct from the family, or each family as distinct from their community, Systems Theory sees a web of relationships and interdependence. Peace in the Family draws upon this multidimensional approach, creating engagement on many levels. As individuals and each family learn new skills, the community is strengthened. In turn, the community gives to each family and the individuals.

At one religious school site, the participants’ stories changed during the program and a new community story emerged. We discussed how individuals can create stress for the family by taking care of themselves only or, in turn, how family needs can create stress for individual members. This grew into a larger story sharing as we talked about how the demands placed on the students by the school created stress for the families.

After learning and practicing how to brainstorm new ideas to get unstuck from conflict, we divided into groups to talk about means to reduce school stress. Coming back together into the larger group, new ideas emerged. There was a shift from the earlier “disgruntled community story” into one of greater ease and hopefulness. Even the teens felt lighter and engaged!

This successful model utilizes various levels of engagement and interaction, including: family members interacting with each other; family-to-family interaction; members of families engaging outside of their family; and, families interacting as a whole community. Children’s ages would determine the length of interaction and types of activities used, creating opportunity for a “hands-on,” playful experience.

At one site, the teens and their parents separated for one activity, allowing teens to meet with adults outside their own family. The large group activities invite everyone to participate, building bridges across families, age, culture, language, and other “barriers.” Relationships are strengthened on all levels, as participants are invited into meaningful conversations, learning to listen to each other and give each other time.

Collaborative Storytelling Teams

Each site had a unique collaborative team of professional storytellers, trainers, and volunteers, representing a diversity of gender, culture, faith, and story experience. In total, 38 participated on these collaborative teams. Despite the additional amount of time required to prepare for each site, the collaborative planning process and cross-disciplinary sharing was an extremely engaging process.

Perhaps because storytellers tend to work alone, the collaborative teams elicited true excitement in creating a collective project. Through dialog and process, each of the five teams produced distinctive programs for each community site, reflecting their assets and gifts. Many of the storytellers also played dual roles of storyteller and trainer, presenting a specific skill paired with their own stories.

“You know that us Latinas don’t have stress 一 we just call each other,” laughed Renya. “But we do!” replied Isabelle, a trainer from Argentina. “And I just think we have to do what is meaningful for us””” This started a conversation on intra- and inter-cultural differences. Our conversations helped us all learn about ourselves, each other, and the families with whom we were going to work.

Applied Storytelling Training was provided to trainers at The Conflict Center, the sponsoring non-profit organization in Denver, Colorado. The trainers sparkled with excitement on how stories expanded their own view of peace and nonviolence. Expressing deep gratitude Tammy said, “I can’t believe that I have been teaching this material for so long, but your story connected me to the material like nothing else has!

How the Model Stretched

The basic model encompasses interweaving the four building blocks (pages 9-10) with storytelling and story sharing focused on peace and nonviolence skill building activities. A unique agenda, with the ability to adapt to the particular needs of each diverse community, was developed for each site.

This educational family model has been effective in working with a wide range of children’s ages within families, from preschool age to teenagers. Additionally, it accommodates a more intimate setting, where families already know each other, to a larger community session. A Peace Day was added at one school, utilizing eight volunteer storytellers (Spell-binders). Griot and professional storyteller Opalanga opened up the morning ceremonies, and I presented a student workshop entitled, “The Third Side of Peace.” A Sudanese mother from the school community ended the day with a beautiful story of how her tribe approaches conflict resolution and peacemaking in everyday life.

The four building blocks are an important framework for each program. The rabbi at the religious school deeply appreciated a new way to engage families with teenagers in discussions about rituals and traditions at a time when communication could be most challenging. At another site, the juxtaposition of playing together and restoring balance was just what a teacher thought her parents needed.

At some sites we moved the whole community through the four building blocks at the same time, while at others we divided the families into sub-groups. At one elementary school, the family advocate wanted to group the families by grade levels in order to develop a sense of community.

In another setting, we began by presenting a bilingual program to the entire community. At yet another public school, we began with concurrent English and Spanish story sessions and then combined everyone into three groups that rotated between three peace centers, discussing the skills while they did an activity. This engaged the very young children throughout the evening, ending with a fun cooperative game.

All of the sites were deeply touched by the closing circles, especially the blessing circles. At the Intergenerational African-American site, there were two circles; first the adults blessed the children who sat in chairs, and then the children stood behind the adults and gave their blessings, moving slowly around the circle. Smiles and tears were the living records of the effectiveness of our afternoon here!

The activities provided a “hands-on” and fun component, which was in itself an experience in being playful. Working from my Balance Holistic Model, we engaged participants on all four levels of their body, mind, heart and soul.

Background of the Program

This original family education model was developed through a National Storytelling Network Personal Grant in 2006. As the coordinator, I partnered with Opalanga to develop this program. We choose to use a collaborative approach. The curriculum was partially provided through The Conflict Center (www.conflictcenter.org).

My unique role as coordinator and collaborative team leader reflected my dual “hats” as a Conflict Center Trainer and a professional storyteller. This became a multi-dimensional project, with the creation of a strong and effective family peace education model based on storytelling and skill building.

Serving in several roles, I interspersed teaching applied skill building for peace (The Conflict Center  curriculum) and applied storytelling skills into each collaborative team site planning session. A successful formal training for The Conflict Center staff was very well received. The training, provided by Opalanga and myself, covered the intentional use of story to teach peace skills and the Peace in the Family model. In addition, I spent time coaching some individual storytellers.

Documentation

Participants in each community site were asked to fill out both pre and post evaluations. This was sometimes a cumbersome and time- consuming process, as volunteers were needed to help those who could not read well or the larger groups. Anecdotal evaluations (I liked.. I learned…I wished…) for each session were collected from both participants and the staff at each community site.

We received evaluations from the professional storytellers, staff trainers, and all the volunteers. In addition, the collaborative team members gave detailed evaluations of their experiences of the teams and of the actual event. Recording what you do via evaluations is an effective way to build your program. Each successful program helped to inform the next community site.

What We Learned

Different doors opened to our program. Schools particularly liked the use of story and could use Literacy and Title I monies because of this storytelling component. Resilience and Youth At Risk monies could be used for the peacemaking component. Parent Educators liked involvement of the whole family. Many were drawn to the community building aspects, empowering their community members with vital peacemaking skills.

One public school invited us into their disgruntled community to build bridges. Spanish-speaking parents and the English- speaking Hispanic parents had been physically fighting on the playground. The principal wanted to bring the two groups together in a non-threatening program. The relationship building and learning of new skills carried considerable weight in advancing her vision of community harmony.

Everyone asked for more! More time, stories, ideas…because they learned, had fun, and felt that it was a meaningful program. Opalanga and I have a new vision to expand the single introductory family session into a series of four in-depth sessions, each focusing on one of the four building blocks. We are currently gathering materials to grow this program.

What Is Next? Workbook and Facilitator’s Guide

This project has been well received and I have been asked several times for a workbook. Storytellers, teachers, parent educators, peace educators, volunteer storytellers and trainers have all expressed interest in formal trainings on both applied storytelling and the weaving of applied story and skills for peace.

My current vision is to write a workbook and guide, followed with Train the Trainer instruction. The bottom drawer of my file cabinet contains handouts, story ideas, activities, pictures, agendas, and evaluations. Because the collaborative approach was such a meaningful and significant factor in the development of this program, I believe that I would like to use this approach to create these written materials. This process is unfolding.

I am deeply grateful for my initial discussion with Allison Cox, who has edited two beautiful story collections and offered suggestions on how to move forward on our project. Just as Allison invited storytellers to share their stories and expertise in specific areas, I would like to invite storytellers to submit their stories and exercises they have used, reflecting the four building blocks and working with families. My vision is to begin with a call for submissions to those who have already participated in this project as well as those who might be able to contribute based on their story work. My hope is to collect these meaningful stories, combining them with suggested activities, handouts, and sections on applied story telling, applied skill building for peacemaking and tips for family education, as a basis for a workbook and guide this year. Upon completion of these, I envision training others to use this program in their own diverse communities.


This article appeared in the Diving in the Moon Journal, Issue 5, Summer 2008.

Susan Kaplan, M.S.W., M.P.A., is a trainer, coach, consultant, adjunct faculty member, storyteller and story listener. Susan provides a circle of services, based on a holistic model from Storytelling and Story Listening, Peacemaking, Walk and Talk Sessions, and Balance and Harmony. She is currently the leader of a Peacemaker Practice Circle and will be teaching a Community Wellness Course at the University of Denver and two storytelling classes at Swallow Hill Music Association. Susan is a contract trainer for The Conflict Center. To learn more, visit her web site: www.susankaplanmsw.com.

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