How Well Does Your Family Know It’s History?


How well do you think you know your family’s history?

Story Telling2More importantly to me, I’d like to confirm that there is practical value in my documenting and sharing my family’s story.    I sure hope so, because this blog site, as my legacy to future generations of my family, is intended to provide accurate reflections from my family’s past and to hopefully create mirrors to future generations that instill in them a sense of pride, well-being, self esteem, a true belonging to a greater and more in depth personal family history that inspires them in their life’s pursuits.

brucerfeilerI have been looking into and compiling our family’s history since 1980.  I have been writing posts on this blog from this genealogical research since 2011. Family history and genealogical research fascinate me—but beyond just being interesting, exploring family history is an activity that can be traced back to both the Old and New Testament eras. (If you have read the New Testament, you may recall that the story of Jesus opens with a lengthy genealogy that traces all of his human ancestors–not the famous Christmas story that you may have expected.)

I mention this because Bruce Feiler, (New York Times columnist and author of six consecutive New York Times bestsellers), published a new book in January 2014,  The Secrets of Happy Families.   In it, is a section on the value of passing on family stories to children. This section gets at the heart of why I started this blog.  And, when Bible Gateway shared an excerpt from it on their blog, I felt compelled to also share it with you:

Guest Post by:   NY Times Best Selling Author, Bruce Feiler

Adapted from The Secrets of Happy Families.

I hit the breaking point as a parent a few years ago. It was the week of my extended family’s annual gathering in August. My parents were aging; my wife and I were straining under the chaos of young children; my sister was bracing to prepare her preteens for bullying, sex and cyber stalking.

Sure enough, one night all the tensions boiled over. At dinner, I noticed my nephew texting under the table. I knew I shouldn’t say anything, but I asked him to stop.

Ka-boom! My sister snapped at me to not discipline her child. My dad pointed out that my girls were the ones balancing spoons on their noses. My mom said none of the grandchildren had manners. Within minutes, everyone had fled to separate corners.

That night I began to wonder: What is the secret sauce that holds a family together? What are the ingredients that make some families effective, resilient, happy?

I spent the last few years trying to answer that question, meeting families, scholars and experts ranging from peace negotiators to online game designers to Warren Buffett’s bankers. After a while, a surprising theme emerged. The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.

I first heard this idea from Marshall Duke, a colorful psychologist at Emory University. In the mid-1990’s, Dr. Duke and colleague Robyn Fivush developed a measure called the “Do You Know?” scale that asked children to answer 20 questions. Examples included: 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 asked those questions of four dozen families then compared the children’s results to a battery of psychological tests. Their 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.

“We were blown away,” Dr. Duke said.

Why does knowing where your grandmother went to school help a child overcome something as minor as a skinned knee or as major as a terrorist attack?

“The answers have to do with a child’s sense of being part of a larger family,” Dr. Duke said.

Psychologists have found that every family has a unifying narrative, he explained, and those narratives take one of three shapes.

First, the ascending family narrative: “Son, when we came to this country, we had nothing. Our family worked. We opened a store. Your grandfather went to high school. Your father went to college. And now you. …”

Second is the descending narrative: “Sweetheart, we used to have it all. Then we lost everything.”

“The most healthful narrative,” Dr. Duke continued, “is the third one. It’s called the oscillating family narrative: ‘Dear, let me tell you, we’ve had ups and downs in our family. We built a family business. Your grandfather was a pillar of the community. Your mother was on the board of the hospital. But we also had setbacks. You had an uncle who was once arrested. We had a house burn down. Your father lost a job. But no matter what happened, we always stuck together as a family.’ ”

Dr. Duke said that children who have the most self-confidence have what he and Dr. Fivush call a strong “inter-generational self.” They know they belong to something bigger than themselves.

Religious traditions do a particularly good job at conveying this message. Many Bible stories including overcoming suffering and bouncing back from difficult times. One reason religious communities are so tight is that they understand one of their roles is to help people who are experiencing pain and hardship.

Dr. Duke recommends that parents convey similar messages to their children. Any number of occasions work to convey this feeling: holidays, vacations, big family get-togethers, even a ride to the mall. The hokier the family’s tradition, he said, the more likely it is to be passed down. “These traditions become part of your family,” he said.

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.


For more information, please visit www.brucefeiler.com.

2 thoughts on “How Well Does Your Family Know It’s History?

  1. A very interesting post. I t gives one a lot to think about. I also tend to look at it from a bigger scale. While family history is very important, how about history in general. Does the more one knows of his countries’ history would that make him a better citizen and have perhaps more patriotic feelings? Would it not give him a better understanding of todays’ events? Why is history being left out of education more and more? The more we connect to our past the more grounded we are today.

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    • Thank you for your thought filled comment. I totally agree. However, my 13 year old grand daughter shared and recommended a historic novel “candle in the darkness” by Lynn Austin. Very descriptive about the culture and relationships of the civil war era in Richmond. I hope other schools and teachers are promoting this kind of literature.

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