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The Importance of Having a Family Narrative

Tingley-021 colorWhen I taught eighth grade years ago, I often had my students make time lines or family trees or family crests in conjunction with various pieces of literature we were reading.  These were tasks that kids enjoyed, but as I moved through my teaching career the assignments became more complicated for kids as parents divorced and remarried and families became more blended and less traditional.  Kids became confused regarding whom to include in their family trees and which family to represent in their family crest.  Eventually I abandoned those projects, not wanting to make the whole thing into a problem for kids and not wanting to look as if I were prying too deeply into family issues.

Now a new theory suggests that children who are conversant with family history and are able to tell their family’s story are more resilient than other children when faced with hurdles in their own lives.  Bruce Feiler, writing in the “This Life” column in The New York Times, suggests after years of research that developing a “strong family narrative” may be one of the most important things you can do for your children.

Feiler builds his argument on his own research and on the earlier work of psychologists Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush of Emory University.  The two developed a measure called the “Do You Know” scale, composed of 30 questions they would pose to children.  For example, children were asked, “Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school?  Do you know the story of your birth?  Do you know where your grandparents grew up?

What the psychologists found was that children who knew a great deal about their family history felt they had more control over their lives, had higher self-esteem, and were better able to handle difficult times themselves.  The reason for these children’s resilience, the psychologists concluded, was that children who know their family’s narrative feel part of a larger family, and the idea is sustaining.  The psychologists further pointed out that the most helpful narratives are those that included both successes and failures, especially when the failures are presented as something the family was able to handle or overcome. 

The researchers note that family traditions, even the hokiest, and family stories help kids feel comfortable and safe.  I immediately thought of a conversation I had the other day with my daughter who with her husband and one-year-old recently moved into a new house.  Her husband wondered whether he should Storybook1throw away his collection of Star Wars figures, including a couple of unopened kits of aircraft not yet put together.  She advised him to hang on to the kits because they were something he and their daughter could one day put together. Then she said to me, “Remember when Dad and I put together that radio when I was in first grade?”  I had totally forgotten about that project.  She had not.

Still, I have to wonder whether it’s knowing a positive family history or having a positive family history that influences a child’s resilience and self-esteem.  Feiler concludes,  “If you want a happier family, create, refine, and retell the story of your family’s positive moments and your ability to bounce back from difficult ones.”   That theory may work for middle and upper class kids.  For lots of our nation’s kids living in poverty or even homeless, however, that’s easier said than done.  I probably abandoned those projects at the right time.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.