Baumgardner: Telling family stories creates strong, resilient children

Baumgardner: Telling family stories creates strong, resilient children

September 1st, 2013 By Julie Baumgardner in Life Entertainment

Do you know where your grandparents grew up, where your parents went to school or how they met and fell in love? Do you have memories of sitting around the family dinner table or with extended family over the holidays, listening to them share stories about the past? You know the ones that began with, "When I was your age, we walked five miles uphill in the snow to get to school."

Although this information might have seemed frivolous at the time, you might want to rethink the importance of family stories.

New York Times journalist and author Bruce Feiler spent years studying what makes families strong. The research revealed that developing a family narrative in which children have a good grasp of their family history helps them develop a strong sense of self that helps them do better in life.

Feiler looked at the work of Drs. Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush at Emory University who developed a measure called the Do You Know? (DYK) scale. Using this scale, they asked children 20 questions about family history. Such as: Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know about something really terrible that happened to your family?

In 2001, they asked 50 families to tape their dinner conversations, then compared the results to psychological tests given to the children. The results showed that the more children knew about their family history, the higher their self-esteem and sense of control over their lives.

Interestingly, Marshall and Fivush had an unusual opportunity in that the events of 9/11 occurred months after they collected their data. They went back to the families to reassess the children and again found that those who knew more about their families were more resilient, meaning they dealt better with the stress of the trauma.

Additionally, the higher scores on the DYK scale were also associated with a belief in one's own capacity to control what happens to him or her, 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.

Duke warns parents that it's not just about children knowing the answers to questions on the scale. He recommends that parents pursue activities with their children that convey this sense of history during holidays, birthday celebrations, family trips in the car, vacations and big family get-togethers. Even simple events like a ride to the mall, looking through a family photo album or teaching about a cheesy family tradition that has been passed down through the years can have a positive impact. The stories are the foundation on which children can grow stronger and healthier. They should be told over and over again through the years.

So the next time your children roll their eyes as you begin telling them stories from the past, just remember that you are helping build what Duke and Fivush call "the child's intergenerational self" along with building personal strength and giving them moral guidance.

Do your children know your family stories?

Julie Baumgardner is president and CEO of First Things First. Contact her at julieb@firstthings.org.