old fashioned family picnic

By Amy Hackworth. Image here.

“Tell us another one!” It’s a gleeful plea at the kitchen table after Sunday dinner, and our boys are dying to hear another story from their dad’s childhood. Fortunately, Justin is blessed with a great memory and enough mischievous deeds to tell story after story, keeping our kids captive, and laughing, and begging for more.

We all enjoy the stories, but I’ll relish them a little more after reading Bruce Fieler’s recent New York Times article about the importance of family narratives. Feiler cites research by Marshall Duke and Robin Fivush of Emory University that indicates understanding where our families come from — and how they’ve celebrated the good times and weathered the bad times — is the “best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.” The best single predictor!

I’m amazed that such a simple act of storytelling can have such a deep impact on children’s well-being, but the more children knew about their family, Feiler reports, “the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.” Professor Duke also cites “better family functioning, lower levels of anxiety, fewer behavioral problems, and better chances for good outcomes if a child faces educational or emotional/behavioral difficulties.”

Interestingly, it’s not just knowing the answer to questions like, “How did your parents meet?” or “What happened when you were born?” that matters. It’s why and how children know the answers, or as Professor Duke says, “the process by which these things came to be known.” Since the questions (see all 20 questions on the “Do you Know…?” scale here) refer to events before a child was born or beyond her experience, knowing the answers relies on repeated family conversations, dinners, and gatherings, and hearing those same stories over and over and over again (sorry, kids!) until they become shared knowledge.

That shared knowledge creates an “intergenerational self,” a belief that somehow creates resilience as we come to understand we are part of something that started long before. And we understand what that something is — our beginning, our heritage, our family — when we share the stories that created it.

Do you feel connected to the stories of your family’s past? Can you answer the 20 “Do You Know?” questions? And how are you sharing your family’s history with your kids?

P.S. — Feel free to tease me for liking the Judd’s, but I have always loved this song about ancestors, and now I have research-based evidence to back it up! : ) Find additional questions for gathering family history hereAnd remember another of our discussions about family stories and StoryCorps here. Thanks to my yoga friend Randy for sharing Fieler’s article with me!