Home Commentary Not sure why you’d write your family’s history? Read this.

Not sure why you’d write your family’s history? Read this.

“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 recent 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. 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.

The White Family, Amish Acres campground, Indiana, 1973

The White Family, Amish Acres campground, Indiana, 1973.

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 awarness need not be focused only on successes, but on failures as well. Knowing, for example, that one’s parent made some foolish mistakes during adolscence 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 why you should write your family’s history.

*Why not start by writing the answers to the “Do You Know” questionnaire?  You’ll find them in this Huffington Post article.



One Response

  1. […] I take in these observations, they blend with previous research I’ve studied on the power of narrative to strengthen families. I arrive at the idea that writing about the […]

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