There is something powerful about knowing our family’s stories because our personal stories are embedded in our family’s histories. They tell us who we are and how to be in the world. Psychologists know that children understand who they are not only through their individual experience, but through the filters of family stories.
Stories are powerful frames for understanding the world and ourselves (Miller, 2006). Who we are is largely defined by the experiences we have and how we understand those experiences (McLean 2007). In other words, it’s not what happens to us but what we make of it that effects our behavior. Family discussions help to formulate our own perspectives of those experiences.
Our family history provide a sense of identity through time and help children understand who they are in the world. Children who know about their relatives have a higher levels of emotional well-being and educational functioning. When families share stories about parents and grandparents, about their ups and downs, their triumphs and failures, they provide powerful models for children.
A team of researchers from Emory University found that knowledge of family history help children to have a stronger sense of self, have higher self-esteem, better family functioning, greater family cohesiveness, lower levels of anxiety, and lower incidence of behavior problems. They also found family knowledge can predict children's well-being and likelihood of overcoming psychological and educational challenges.
The Emory researchers had theorized that family stories are a critical part of adolescents' emerging identity and well-being, but they haven't been able to measure how much kids knew about their family’s history and inter-generational family stories. The Emory researchers developed a "Do You Know" (DYK) scale to measure that. The DYK scale has 20 yes/ no questions asking the child to report if they know such things as how their parents met, or where they grew up and went to school among many others. Indeed, some of the children didn’t know the legal names of their grandparents, for instance, but the teens who knew more stories about their extended family showed higher levels of emotional well-being, and also higher levels of identity achievement.
Psychologist understand that regardless of the activity, the human being need to be with others because it helps fend off the anxiety and aloneness. Traditionally, family meals have served that purpose and provided opportunities for conversations about ongoing events in the family’s life.
Hofferth (1999:2000) studied changes in American family life and found that the single strongest predictor of academic achievement and low rates of behavioral problems was the amount of home-based family meal time. She found that meal time as a family was a more powerful predictor than time spent in school, studying, church, or participation in sports. Yet, time spent in the traditional family meal is losing ground to sports and other extra-curricular activities, work, wireless communication and time.
Too often when families do sit down together, most are less than happy with the outcome. Family dinners are often conflict ridden and unproductive for problem solving. There is a great deal correcting table manners, complaining about unacceptable behavior, sulking and sullen children, frustrated parents. Talk like pass the peas, salt or butter was most common. Many topics are interrupted, switched back and forth from school-related issues, to family issues, to problem-solving, and the like. Keeping track of what’s going on can be mind boggling.
Other researchers have analyzed dinner time conversations and other measures to see of how well families work. When examining how families re-tell the same stories, reworking the narrative to explain and clarify, they illuminate how these give-and-take interactions go beyond influencing memories for the events; they encourage perspective-taking, critical thinking, theory-building, and relationship roles within the family. Considering this process, family dinner time is worth the hassle.
So, what’s a Parent to do?
1. Tell your story. The most important thing you can do may be the easiest of all. Tell your children the stories of their family. Children who know more about their parents, grandparents, and other relatives – both their ups and their downs – have higher self-esteem and greater confidence to confront their own challenges.
2. Share the good, and the not so good
The stories need not be focused only on successes. Knowing how one's parents and grandparents made some foolish mistakes may help a young person avoid them. Knowing how they avoided pitfalls to success may be instructive in future careers.
3. Worry less about table manners and what’s being eaten. Without badmouthing anyone, give family members a chance to settle down, have a bite to eat and chat. While the process matters, the results are more important. Knowledge of family stories is more than simply a marker for better family communication and functioning in general, but rather, there is something powerful about how they help strengthen the bonds of attachment.
© Rachell N. Anderson, Psy. D., April 29, 2013
Dr. Rachell Anderson is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, a Professor Emeritus and author. She taught at the University of Illinois and ran a Private Clinical in Springfield, Illinois for more than 40 years. She now lives and writes in Tunica, Mississippi. Check out her website at WWW.drrachellanderson.com for more articles and books.