In 2001, a psychologists Dr. Fivush and Dr. Duke set out to test the hypothesis that children who knew a lot about their families coped better when faced with challenges. Developing a set of 20 ‘Do you know?’ questions, they interviewed children from over 48 families asking them things like:
Do you know the story of your birth?
Do you know how your parents met?
Do you know what your grandparents did for a living?
The research results indicated that the more a child knew of their family history, the greater their emotional health, self-control, and happiness within their family unit was. The families that participated in this research were re-assessed after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center that year. In alignment with their original findings, the children with a strong knowledge base of their family’s history proved to be more resilient and better prepared to moderate the effects of stress and collective trauma that came about from that horrific event.
The correlation between knowing where your grandpa grew up and your ability to bounce back from a failed test may seem absurd. However, the answer lies in one’s sense of belonging and their connection to a larger family narrative.
What is a family narrative?
Think of it this way: businesses and organizations have mission and vision statements that all their aims and objectives must align with. Corporations have “identities”. There are entire departments and job roles devoted to “brand awareness”. Every day, people build and identify with narratives that explain what a group is about whether it’s a political party, a college fraternity, the armed forces, a business or...a family.
How do you create a family narrative?
Write a family mission statement: Together, define what your core values are as a family.
Develop family traditions: Overtime and as they’re passed down, traditions convey a sense of history that is important for future generations to connect with. I knew a couple who exchanged vinyl records every Valentine’s Day and eventually their children did this with their own significant others. But it doesn’t have to be something associated with a holiday or special occasion. For example, my dad has had a life-long habit of doing ‘morning pages’ from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. Observing this as I grew up directly influenced my own writing process, and the reasons why I write. Traditions link strongly to the sense of belonging and identity. They often make for positive memories, too.
Tell stories and share memories: One of the simplest and easiest ways to develop a strong family narrative is to talk to your children about your family’s history. Share stories from your childhood. Ask your parents to tell their grandkids about what it was like to experience x,y,z. Consider the legacies generations before you have passed down. What things have defined your family? The good and the bad.
Don’t hide the hardships: It is incredibly important for children to develop healthy, positive narratives about themselves. Therefore, it can help them to grow up hearing stories about their family members overcoming setbacks and tragedies. It’s one thing to talk through problems with children and it’s another for children to witness their parents’ perseverance and ability to bounce back in the face of hardship.
Intergenerational exposure: Children who form relationships with multiple generations get exposed to different perspectives and life stories. Knowing their grandparents and other extended relatives can help them to understand how or why their parents are the way they are. They may pick up on certain family narratives spoken or unspoken, which contribute to their own understanding of how they fit into the larger family story. Furthermore, it's beneficial to form bonds with relatives outside their nuclear family. Once again, this can contribute to that strong sense of belonging and security which helps kids develop self-confidence. Obviously, not everyone lives near their family. Thankfully, technology makes it easier than ever to keep connected with loved ones from afar.
Recording Family History
Consider how you might preserve your family’s legacy. Record conversations with older relatives in your family, capturing their life stories while they’re still alive to tell them. Digitize all those old photo albums and put photos somewhere cloud-based so they can be accessed by everyone in the family. There are websites that will help you build and design life bio books that can be passed down or ordered for everyone as a treasured Christmas gift. Other services will record phone conversations you have and then you can download the audio file for a small fee. A simple Google search will present a lot of opportunities and useful information on how to safely store and preserve precious family memories to be enjoyed by future generations!
Duke, M.P., Lazarus, A., & Fivush, R. (2008). Knowledge of family history as a clinically useful index of psychological well-being and prognosis: A brief report. Psychotherapy Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 45, 268-272.