Family stories sometimes are fun, sometimes nostalgic, and times they can be unsettling--but what are the ways in which family stories are important? This was the question that arose when I ran across Marshall Duke's research about how youth with a strong knowledge of family stories and family history tended to have fewer behavioral problems, less anxiety, and greater self-control than comparable youth who did not know family stories and history.
Dr. Duke conducted the study using a 20-question survey. Examples of the questions were: "Do you know how some of your grandparents met?" and "Do you know the national background of your family (such as English, German, Russian, Russian, etc.) [A full list of these questions can be found at the bottom of this post]. The research used widely accepted measures of family functioning, self-esteem, and locus of control, and showed strong correlations between knowledge of stories and these behavioral measures (1).
So what does this mean? As Dr. Duke stated, the take away from the study should not be that parent introduce a home-based curriculum in which children and taught and then tested on family history information.
The specifics of family history are, in many cases, embedded in stories, generally told in a family atmosphere in which there is open communication. Additional research indicates that the sharing of stories typically happens during holidays, family vacations, and family mealtimes (2). It is not clear how and when family stories are shared in families where shared mealtimes are less frequent and vacations rare.
One explanation of Marshall Duke's research findings in that the knowledge of family stories can serve as a marker of open family communication. Aside from that, what about knowing family stories would contribute to overall well-being?
In an interview, Dr. Duke's answer to that question was: "There are heroes in these stories, there are people who faced the worst and made it through. And this sense of continuity and relatedness to heroes seems to serve the purpose in kids of making them more resilient. Ordinary families can be special because they each have a history no other family has. They all have Uncle So and So, they all have Aunt So and So. They all have a brother who went off and did this adventure, and everyone has a story that no one else has. So if you know that, it makes you special. It's a fingerprint" (3).
Knowing family stories can let you know how your ancestors made their way in the world and how they overcame adversity. In a course I taught, students wrote a paper about their ethnicity and their foremothers and forefathers. One student wrote: "I come from a line of strong Irish women." She saw herself as part of that lineage.
That student was displaying what psychologist Robyn Fiyush categorizes as a sense of the intergenerational self. According to Fiyush, our identity comes form what we have experienced and also what we have been told. Family stories, including those of previous generations and of what life was like for the parent(s) before the child was born, create meaning beyond the individual, including a sense of self through historical time (4).
A lack of family information and family stories is most pronounced for individuals who were adopted. For adoptees in closed adoptions, there is no knowledge of the birth parents and their families, leading to genealogical bewilderment, a disruption of the links between the past and the present. This lack of a connection between the past to the present can negatively affects one's identity, and may make it more difficult to envision the future (5).
I go back to Robyn Fiyush: our identity comes from what we have experienced and also what we have been told. I would add that part of the power of family stories is that at times both of these are happening. The telling of well-known family stories as a family gathers can be a communal event, with children as well as adults adding in details of a story.
However, it is important to note that while telling stories where the family's well-being increases over generations is relatively easy, telling the negative stories of a family is also important, and more difficult. If one is telling family stories to a child, not only the nature of the story but also the developmental age of the child has to be taken into account. Here is an example from my family. My wife's great-grandfather was murdered on the way home from a poker game in Ohio one night, probably killed by a cousin for the winnings. When he was in grade school, our son found the story fascinating and bragged about it to his friends. As he grew older, the story became more disturbing for him and complicated his thoughts about our family history. For, that family story is a close-to-home example about how a tragic event can debilitate a family over generations. I never shared my interpretation with our children, and I wonder how I could have done so when they were younger in a way that might have given them a better context for the story.
I started this writing with the question: "What are the ways in which family stories are important?" Marshall Duke's research on family history and family stories is a partial answer to that question, and his study also does the same thing that a good story does. It points us in the direction of something worth thinking about.
1. Duke, Marshall, Lazarus, Amber, and Fiyush, Robyn. "Knowledge of family history as a clinically useful index of psychological well-being and prognosis: A brief report." Psychotherapy Theory, Research, Practice Training. 45 (2008): 268-272.
2. Bower, G.H. and Clark, M.C. "Narrative stories as mediators for serial learning." 14 (1969): 181-182.
3. Kurylo, Elizabeth. "Profile: Marshall Duke." Emory Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life. (2013): www.marial.emory.edu/faculty/profiles/duke.htm.
4. Fiyush, Robyn, Bohanek, Jeffifer, and Duke, Marshall. “The Intergenerational Self: Subjective Perspective and Family History.” In Self Continuity: Individual and Collective Perspectives, Fabio Sani, ed. New York: Psychology Press, 2008, pp. 131-143.
5.. Affleck, M. & Steed, L. “Expectations and Experiences of Participants in Ongoing Adoption Reunion Relationships: A Qualitative Study". American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 71(1), (2001): 38-48.
DO YOU KNOW
1. Do you know how your parents met? Y N
2. Do you know where your mother grew up? Y N
3. Do you know where your father grew up? Y N
4. Do you know where some of your grandparents grew up? Y N
5. Do you know where some of your grandparents met? Y N
6. Do you know where your parents were married? Y N
7. Do you know what went on when you were being born? Y N
8. Do you know the source of your name? Y N
9. Do you know some things about what happened when your brothers or sisters were being born?
10. Do you know which person in your family you look most like? Y N
11. Do you know which person in the family you act most like? Y N
12. Do you know some of the illnesses and injuries that your parents experienced when they were younger? Y N
13. Do you know some of the lessons that your parents learned from good or bad experiences? Y N
14. Do you know some things that happened to your mom or dad when they were in school? Y N
15. Do you know the national background of your family (such as English, German, Russian, etc.)? Y N
16. Do you know some of the jobs that your parents had when they were young? Y N
17. Do you know some awards that your parents received when they were young? Y N
18. Do you know the names of the schools that your mom went to? Y N
19. Do you know the names of the schools that your dad went to? Y N
20. Do you know about a relative whose face "froze" in a grumpy position because he or she did not smile enough (or another apocryphal story)? Y N
Storying the Human Experience
Yes, it's a grandiose title. But, as Flannery O'Connor once said, "A story is a way to say something that can't be said any other way."