Is there a secret sauce of family togetherness? Maybe so, but it’s probably not what you’d expect. It’s not time on the soccer fields. Not shuttling back and forth between activities. Not the best SAT scores, going to the top universities, or even time at the lake house.
It’s something quite different. It’s the family stories we tell and share.
The New York Times once ran an article titled “The Stories That Bind Us,” adapted from Bruce Feiler’s book The Secrets of Happy Families.
Feiler recounts the work of Marshall Duke, a psychologist at Emory University. In the mid-1990s, Duke was asked to explore myth and ritual in American families. Duke’s wife Sara, a psychologist who worked with children with learning disabilities, had noticed that the students who knew a lot about their families tended to be more resilient in the face of challenges.
Duke and his colleague Robyn Fivush conducted research on the subject of family history. They came to a simple, yet profound conclusion: “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.”
Two months after the study, the September 11 tragedy happened. The two psychologists went back to the families they had studied to reassess the children after their common experience of a national trauma. Once again, those who knew more about their families proved to be more resilient.
Why Family Stories Matter
As Duke learned, those children who learn they are part of a larger ongoing narrative have a greater sense of confidence and of belonging. They have a strong “intergenerational self,” knowing they are part of something bigger than themselves.
The best narratives frame the moments of success and setback in the context of a family’s history. We tell how our family has come through the ups and downs, how we’ve survived and thrived, and how we are who we are today as a result.
The stories that we pass on to our children will help to keep us together. What are you communicating with the stories you are sharing with your children?
“The best narratives frame the moments of success and setback in the context of a family’s history. We tell how our family has come through the ups and downs, how we’ve survived and thrived, how we are who we are today as a result.”
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