By Sarah White
I wrote this in 2013. Today, I believe just as strongly in the importance of preserving family history as I did then.
“The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative,” wrote Bruce Feiler in a March 2013 New York Times article.*
Recent research has brought new breakthroughs in knowledge about how to make families, along with other groups, work more effectively. Feiler cited research from Marshall Duke, psychologist at Emory University, showing that children who know a lot about their families tend to do better when they face challenges. With his colleagues, he went on to develop a measure called the “Do You Know” scale,” which asked children questions about their families. (You can find it in this Huffington Post article.) They found that the more children knew about their family’s history, the better their emotional health, happiness, and resilience.
Fascinated by Feiler’s report, I went googling to find more about Duke’s research and the “Do You Know” scale. This led me to work by Duke and his colleagues Robyn Fivush and Jennifer Bohanek on the power of family history in adolescent identity and well-being.
I discovered that not only is knowledge of family history beneficial for young children–it plays an active role in formation of adolescent identity.
“…awareness of the ways in which one’s parents or grandparents dealt in the past with the sorts of challenges facing an adolescent in the present can be beneficial in learning to adjust to the stresses and demands of the teen years…Such awareness need not be focused only on successes, but on failures as well. Knowing, for example, that one’s parent made some foolish mistakes during adolescence can certainly help a young teenager avoid those same mistakes,” wrote Duke et al in a 2010 paper in the Journal of Family Life.
Older family members are the primary source of family information–not just about their own lives, but as caretakers of the extended family narrative reaching back generations.
According to the research, the most helpful history for young people is what Duke labeled “the oscillating family narrative”–a story of ups and downs, successes and setbacks, that conveys, “no matter what happens, we always stick together as a family.” This builds children’s sense of a strong “intergenerational self”–knowledge that we belong to something bigger than ourselves.
And that is a good enough reason why you should write your family’s history.
When your family gathers at a holiday like Thanksgiving, you have the perfect opportunity to share and save family stories. See StoryCorps’ “The Great Thanksgiving Listen” for ideas and tips.
*In 2020 Bruce Feiler published a deeper dive into the source of resilience in our lives in his book, Life Is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age.
© 2021 Sarah White
I typically start with this concept of the oscillating family narrative when I teach reminiscence writing. Have a look at my upcoming workshops for January 2022 and beyond on my website, here.