Christi and I did an exercise in premarital counseling that was extremely helpful for us. Our counselors asked us to separately write down in one column three characteristics of our respective families of origin that we wanted to carry into our marriage. Then, in the other column, we were to write down three that we did not want to bring into our own family. The exercise helped us to recognize patterns in our families of origin and empowered us to define how we could honor our families’ heritage.
Turns out we were doing more than just premarital work. We were training to be brain surgeons for our kids.
No, really. Our family heritage matters. And our kids deserve to hear them.
Why? Because kids who know how their grandparents met are better able to recover from wrecking their bicycle or handling the unknowns of a national tragedy, like 9/11. Sounds ridiculous, right?
In 2001, researchers at Emory University decided to assess the truth of the following observation: children who know about their family history are better able to handle stress.
They asked four dozen families questions from a scale they created called the Do You Know? scale and then recorded the families’ dinner conversations.[i] For example,
~ Do you know how your parents met?
~ Do you know what was going on when you were being born?
~ Do you know some of the illnesses and injuries that your parents experienced when they were younger?
~ Do you know some of the lessons that your parents learned from good or bad experiences?
~ Do you know where some of your grandparents grew up?
The findings of the study are fascinating. The more a child knows about her family history:
- the higher her self-esteem
- the more likely she is to believe her family functions in a healthy way
- the more sense of control she has over her life
- and the more likely she is to handle and bounce back from stressful events.
The researchers found that knowing your family history actually predicts a child’s emotional health and happiness.[ii]
What’s more, there are three types of stories that form the narratives of every family. There’s the ascending narrative:
Son, your grandfather was the first man in our family to finish high school and start a business from absolutely nothing. Your father was the first one to complete college and has taken the business even further. Now you…
The descending narrative:
Honey, in the old days, it was much easier to make a living. We had everything we needed. Since the market turned, we have nothing.
In a broad sense, the first narrative is an overly optimistic outlook that our family will always be getting better, doing better, and living better than the generations before it. These are families who may tend to think they have it all together.
The second narrative is more of a doom-and-gloom story line and can constitute families who may play victim to the world around them or see their family members or situations in a purely negative light.
The third narrative, known as the oscillating family narrative, is the healthiest story line a family can have. It’s what I referred in the beginning with our premarital counseling.
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.[iii]
We’re all interwoven in interdependent, intergenerational relationships that take place over time. Making sense of our family history and reframing the meaning of how we fit into those events are critical to raising kids who are emotionally healthy and happy.
Use dinnertime, bedtime or even drive time to tell your own family stories to your kids.
The more our children know about their heritage, the more they feel a part of a story bigger than themselves.
And the more empowered they are to write their own.
Portions of this post excerpted from Safe House: How Emotional Safety is the Key to Raising Kids Who Live, Love, and Lead Well.
[i] The list of the questions is included in Marshall P. Duke, “The Stories That Bind Us: What Are the Twenty Questions?” Huffington Post, March 23, 2013, www.huffingtonpost.com/marshall-p-duke/the-stories-that-bind-us-_b_2918975.html.
[ii] Bruce Feiler, “The Stories That Bind Us,” New York Times, March 15, 2013, www.nytimes.com/2013/03/17/fashion/the-family-stories-that-bind-us-this-life.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.
[iii] This is an example of the oscillating family narrative as described by Marshall Duke in Feiler, “The Stories That Bind Us.”