Here we often extol the power of story to educate, develop character, encourage, etc. Yet the research cited in the article clearly shows that developing a "strong family narrative" is one of the best things you can do for your family. Dr. Marshall Duke, a psychologist at Emory University has researched families for decades and honed in on one aspect of his work to try to discover what kept families together. In an era where divorce and family dissolution is rampant, he was interested in finding out what families could do to counteract this trend. In a fortunate twist, his wife works with children with learning disabilities and she was noticing that the students who were the most successful in navigating the challenges their disability posed were those who seemed to know a lot about their families. So Dr. Duke decided to dig deeper. Read the article here for the whole story as it's definitely worthwhile.
Points that stuck out to me were that in numerous tests the results were always the same: "The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. The “Do You Know?” scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness."
This finding was tested in an extreme way when the September 11 attack happened. And the results held. The children who had a sense of who they were in relationship to a family history were better equipped and more emotionally resilient.
As a child I loved hearing the stories of my parent's childhoods. My dad had hilarious stories about his friends, who he gave nicknames like Meat Man and Bean Bun. My mom would tell us about how she and her seven siblings once thought their neighbor was hanging his wife, only to discover she had a bad back and was being suspended by her feet to get some relief from her chronic pain. We would laugh over the bullies who stole my dad's lunch and smashed bananas on his head. Both of my parents are consummate story tellers and I doubt that they were intentionally trying to create a "family narrative" but that is what they were doing. I also spent hours reading through a collection of stories recorded by a great aunt about her father, my great grandfather, growing up in North Dakota when it was still pretty wild. There were funny stories, boring stories, stories of adventure, stories of failure, and stories of success. And that brings me to a very important point. In the research, the psychologists found that there are three types of family narrative:
"First, the ascending family narrative: 'Son, when we came to this country, we had nothing. Our family worked. We opened a store. Your grandfather went to high school. Your father went to college. And now you....'It is essential that the family story not be whitewashed, nor ought it to be all doom and gloom. Of course, waiting until a child is of an appropriate age to reveal more mature details is wise, but children need a realistic and accurate understanding of their roots.
Second is the descending narrative: 'Sweetheart, we used to have it all. Then we lost everything.'”
'The most healthful narrative,' Dr. Duke continued, 'is the third one. It’s called the oscillating family narrative: "Dear, let me tell you, we’ve had ups and downs in our family. We built a family business. Your grandfather was a pillar of the community. Your mother was on the board of the hospital. But we also had setbacks. You had an uncle who was once arrested. We had a house burn down. Your father lost a job. But no matter what happened, we always stuck together as a family." ' ”
So if you don't already, start telling your children the stories of your childhood. Tell them how their grandparents met, if their marriage was a happy one or maybe a strained one. Tell them about that strange uncle who was always off doing his own thing, or that gossipy sister, or the caring aunt who was a second mother. You'll be surprised by how much your children absorb and take with them. And to broaden your children's understanding of the national narrative, check out our new book, A Child's First Book of American History, now on sale for a limited time.