I just finished a fascinating article that looked at the impact of tellingfamily stories. It turns out that kids that know a lot about their families do better when they face challenges. Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivsush asked kids questions like: Do you know where your parents met? Do you know something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of your birth? They administered their questionnaire, “Do You Know?”, to four dozen families and compared the answers to the psychological tests the kids had taken earlier. Their conclusion was that the more kids 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 family functioned.
While having a strong family narrative is valuable, it’s the particular type of narrative that best predicts to family cohesion and consequently to children’s resilience. There are three types of family narratives. One is an “ascendance narrative,” in which the family does well. The theme of the story is the rags to riches story. The second is a “descending narrative,” in which trouble and travail beset the family that never seems to get ahead. The third narrative is an “oscillating narrative.” In it the family sometimes suffers setbacks and sometimes achieves triumphs, but, most importantly, the family sticks together through it all. Dr. Duke speculates that children with this narrative develop what he calls a strong “intergenerational self.” I think it reflects the comfort we all feel in knowing we are part of something bigger than ourselves, that we belong to a family that has traditions and survival skills that help manage life’s struggles.
My guess is that children who hear “oscillating narratives” also develop a more realistic understanding of life’s ups and down. Facing setbacks might be easier for them. Perhaps they are better equipped to see failure as a temporary state that can be overcome. And so those experiences of setbacks become lessons of courage. I’m reminded of Joseph Campbell’s study of myth and his writing about the journey of the hero. The hero is never consistently successful in his quest. Often he has serious obstacles to overcome and almost always there are times of self doubt, as well as, the need to seek advice from others. Perhaps this is the message that comes across in “oscillating narratives.”
It’s reassuring to know that stories of difficult times are as important to include in family history as success stories. Given this new research you might want to think about what family themes you want to emphasize and share with your children. Elaborate your stories to demonstrate how family members helped one another. Make it interactive and ask your children what they would have done in a similar situation. Talk about the fun celebrations as well as sad occasions. Create a family story album with pictures to accompany the stories.
For more information on helping your child express their emotions, you can pick up a copy of my new book, Yell and Shout, Cry and Pout: A Kid’s Guide to Feelings, available now!