How family stories make us stronger

I’ve been pestering all the elders in the family (my parents and my husband’s) for old family pictures of their parents. I’m putting together a “generations” wall somewhere in the house — maybe by the dining room table — with photos of the couples who came before us.

I’ve seen many of the pictures before. The ones of my maternal and paternal grandfathers in Army uniforms. The one of my Grandmother looking like an old Hollywood movie star with red lips and curled hair. I love these pictures.

Many, though, I haven’t seen. Like the one of my Dad and his sister and their parents on a glass-bottom boat — or the wedding pictures of my young Nana and Papa. I’ve so enjoyed taking them in, like treasures in a new-found time capsule.

I asked a lot of questions of my grandparents when they were alive, but now I wish I had asked so many more. Family stories are such a part of us and I find them to be incredibly comforting. And in a fleeting world where things are constantly changing, these people truly are the roots that ground us.

I was thinking of this concept last night when I stumbled upon an article that introduced me to the research of Marshall Duke, a psychologist from Emory University. Over the last decade, Duke has explored the value of family history in the lives of children. The article continues:

[Duke] developed a list of twenty questions such as “Do you know where your parents met?” “Do you know which person in your family you most look like?” and “Do you know some of the jobs that your parents had when they were young?”

Duke found that the higher children scored on the family-history test, the higher they also scored on measures of self-esteem and self-control and the lower they scored on anxiety, among other measures. Duke even looked at children who experienced the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001. Even in this extreme case, knowledge of family history appeared to indicate how resilient the children were in the months that followed.

Duke explains that it’s not necessarily the facts of the family that give children these qualities but the fact that, if children can answer these questions, it usually means that they have strong connections with mothers and grandmothers and that significant amounts of time have been spent communicating at family dinners and on family vacations. All the stories of a family add up to what Duke calls an intergenerational self, which he associates with personal strength.

I so relate to this idea of an “intergenerational self” — just as I relate to the images of my young grandmothers with children at their feet. I see them cheering me one, encouraging me forward. I am strengthened by the strength I see in them.

I went to look at Duke’s full list of “Do You Know” questions and found the below commentary most resonating:

Each family will have different stories and different key moments and memories that are shared. It is not the content of what is known that is the critical factor, but the process by which these things came to be known.

This process is, in our opinion, the causational factor. In order to hear family stories, people need to sit down with one another and not be distracted. Some people have to talk and some have to listen. The stories need to be told over and over and the times of sitting together need to be multiple and occur over many years. The most convenient times traditionally have been family dinners, family trips in the car, vacations, birthday gatherings, etc. As Bruce Feiler notes, however, given the complexities of modern family life families can also sit and talk over a snack after school or before everyone goes off to work, or at any other time that they can focus on each other.

These gatherings — short or long — are at the heart of the process by which the intergenerational stories can be told and learned and through which children can grow stronger and healthier. No quick fix. No simply learning the answers to the questions. Just coming from a family in which the opportunities to learn family history and to create a family narrative are regular, multiple, predictable and inviolable.

As Bruce Feiler implores in his book, ” The Secrets of Happy Families”: Talk. A lot.

How precious is the gift of family.

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