We can strengthen our family, community, and nation by developing a strong family narrative. A family narrative is the story of the family or a family mission statement. A family narrative helps a child understand that he or she is part of something bigger than himself or herself.
The New York Times published an interesting article by Bruce Feiler about this topic. “… What is the secret sauce that holds a family together? What are the ingredients that make some families effective, resilient, happy?”
Feiler explained that there has been much research in recent years into making teams work together better but most of the knowledge generated by the military and businesses remains in the military circles or the business circles. Feiler spent several years “trying to uncover” the information in order to help his own family as well as other families. As he interviewed numerous people in different circles, he discovered a surprising theme: “develop a strong family narrative.”
Feiler first heard this idea from Marshall Duke, a psychologist at Emory University, who was asked in the mid-1990s to “help explore myth and ritual in American families.” The professor and his associates were “more interested in what families could do to counteract” the breakdown in families. About the same time, Duke’s wife Sara, a psychologist “who works with children with learning disabilities.” She noticed that her students “who know a lot about their families tend to do better when they face challenges.”
Doctor Marshall Duke and his colleague, Robyn Fivush, decided to test Sara’s hypothesis and “developed a measure called the `Do You Know?’ scale that asked children to answer 20 questions” 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 where your parents met? Do you know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of your birth?”
Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivush questioned four dozen families during the summer of 2001 and even “taped some of their dinner table conversations.” The doctors compared the results of the interviews with the results of several psychological tests taken by the children and “reached an overwhelming conclusion. The more children 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 families functioned. The `Do You Know?’ scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.” The doctors were stunned with the results.
About two months later terrorists attacked the United States on September 11, 2001. Even though they were “horrified” like the rest of us, they recognized that the terrible event gave them “a rare opportunity” to do more research. They returned to the families who were previously interviewed. None of the families were “directly affected by the events,” but “all the children had experienced the same national trauma at the same time.” The researchers reassessed the children and discovered that the children “who knew more about their families proved to be more resilient, meaning they could moderate the effects of stress.”
The research proved that knowing simple facts about their family - such as where their grandmother went to school or how their parents met or their own birth story – helps “a child overcome something as minor as a skinned knee or as major as a terrorist attack.” The reason why this knowledge helps children is that it helps them to understand that they are “part of a larger family.”
Feiler learned that other people “found similar results. Many groups use what sociologists call sense-making, the building of a narrative that explains what the group is about.” This is usually accomplished by building traditions that unify the group. Families can do the same type of things, whether it is about celebrating a holiday or where the family goes on vacation.
“Decades of research have shown that most happy families communicate effectively… `talking through problems’ [as well as] … telling a positive story about yourselves. When faced with a challenge, happy families, like happy people, just add a new chapter to their life story that shows them overcoming the hardship. This skill is particularly important for children, whose identity tends to get locked in during adolescence.
“The bottom line: if you want a happier family, create, refine and retell the story of your family’s positive moments and your ability to bounce back from the difficult ones. That act alone may increase the odds that your family will thrive for many generations to come.”
My children and their spouses spend much time, effort, and/or money making happy memories for their children. Instead of throwing lavish birthday parties for their children, they seek special experiences that the children will remember and know how much they are loved. The event may be a children’s play or it could be a camping trip – any reasonable activity that is wholesome. The activity can be a solo date with the parents or a family activity; it just needs to be something extra special.
My children also go out of their way to take their children to family events, such as family reunions, missionary farewells or homecomings, and celebrations of any type. Their children understand that many people love them and are interested in their wellbeing.
I know that we can strengthen the rising generation by helping them to understand that they are part of something bigger than themselves. I know that by strengthening our children we can strengthen our family, community and nation.