Friday, March 22, 2013

Stories that keep families together

This past weekend I read a wonderful article in the New York Times. Entitled, "The Stories that Bind Us" it spoke about the human need to know where we come from. Within families researchers have found that young children who know the most about their family stories are more assured, bounce back from setbacks more easily, and are better equipped to handle challenges! 

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....'
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." ' ”
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.

And I think this can be extrapolated out to a broader level. Could it be that one of the reasons our nation is so fractured is because we have failed to maintain a national narrative? History is taught not as a story but as facts to memorize and forget after a test. Both on a national level and a wider human level the loss of our story has very sad consequences. If knowing the stories of our families makes us want to work harder to keep them together and gives us a strong sense of belong and identity, wouldn't the same be true about a national narrative? Wouldn't it be helpful if our elected officials had a historical perspective and knew that our country has been deeply fractured in the past but pulled together for a greater good? Might it be better to have a fully colored history taught in our schools that recognized our nations strengths as well as her failures? And is it possible that greater human narrative may show us that we're not so different from everyone else? It may be a simplistic to think that but perhaps if we instill a strong sense of our family story within our children, they will go on to think more broadly and see the benefits of working together to preserve the things we love.

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.

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  1. Without knowing any of this, my mom passed along stories of her childhood. She didn't give a lot of detail, but I loved and remembered the stories. My son gets a lot more detail from me and occasionally tells me I have told him the story before... but he remembers. Our family has been close, perhaps because we are willing to share the ups and downs and the stories of our lives that shaped us into the people we are now.

  2. Great article Becca. Thanks. The crazy stories, the silly traditions, the holiday must do's are all part of our family and we love them. Even when we disagree on other things. Some things we really try and keep going. This gives me renewed energy to keep up these stories, the lives of our families and the life that was created from them. Hugs,

  3. I love this post and especially how you've extrapolated it out to a national historical perspective. It also is such a good reminder of how important it is to SLOW down and take the time to talk, muse, and reminisce. The childhood stories don't seem important in and of themselves, but when looked at through this lens, wow! Thanks for sharing!