The Importance of Family Stories
Last fall, the day before Thanksgiving to be precise, I ended up comically going to the Urgent Care center in my city after a squirrel jumped out of a trash bin and flew into my stomach, which ensued in a few squirrel scratches and wonderful conversation the next day at the Thanksgiving dinner table. All of the nurses at the check in counter as well as the doctor laughed as I retold the story of this panicked-looking squirrel darting into my stomach. The doctor told me she was glad to inform me that my scratches weren’t deep enough to prescribe anything other than rubbing antibiotic ointment on it and commented about how this was a light-hearted way of ending one of the most stressful workdays of the year for the Urgent Care center.
“Oh?” I asked, puzzled.
“Sure,” she noted. “Many people come in with heart palpitations and raised blood pressure – it’s all the stress from preparing the meals and seeing family members they haven’t communicated with for a while. Mostly family tension.”
I hadn’t thought of this before and it made me wonder about a couple of questions similar to those posed this year by Bruce Feiler, guest columnist for the New York Times. “What is the secret sauce that holds a family together? What are the ingredients that make some families effective, resilient, happy?”
Surprisingly, recent research suggests that perhaps creating a strong family narrative is the single best thing a family can do to raise healthy children. In the 1990’s a study that worked with children with learning disabilities noticed that the children who knew a lot about their families were better equipped to facing the challenges. Additionally, after the tragedy of 9/11, psychologists studied the effects of family histories on the children who had lost a parent in the attack. Again, the ones who knew more about their families were more resilient and could better moderate the effects of this tremendous stress.
The “Do You Know” scale asked children:
- Do you know how your parents met?
- Do you know where your mother grew up?
- Do you know where your father grew up?
- Do you know where some of your grandparents grew up?
- Do you know where some of your grandparents met?
- Do you know where your parents were married?
- Do you know what went on when you were being born?
- Do you know the source of your name?
- Do you know some things about what happened when your brothers or sisters were being born?
- Do you know which person in your family you look most like?
- Do you know which person in the family you act most like?
- Do you know some of the illnesses and injuries that your parents experienced when they were younger?
- Do you know some of the lessons that your parents learned from good or bad experiences?
- Do you know some things that happened to your mom or dad when they were in school?
- Do you know the national background of your family (such as English, German, Russian, etc)?
- Do you know some of the jobs that your parents had when they were young?
- Do you know some awards that your parents received when they were young?
- Do you know the names of the schools that your mom went to?
- Do you know the names of the schools that your dad went to?
- Do you know about a relative whose face “froze” in a grumpy position because he or she did not smile enough?
But what about the family histories for adopted children? Did it make a difference that growing up I knew that my grandmother was the youngest student to go to her college, that my parents met in Detroit, and that my Dad was a track star in high school? Is my overall happiness affected by the fact that I nor no one in my family can answer these questions in relation to my first family? Because I know nothing about my birth family, I grew up with alternate family and personal histories. Instead of knowing what was going on at the time of my birth, I know what my parents were doing and thinking when they chose to adopt me. Instead of picking out my features that are the same as my mother’s, we laugh about the coincidental similarities between us as two left-handed people who are both night owls and have Humanities centered brains.
From the study, it showed that “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.” My first family’s narrative has been a continuous mystery and source of unsettlement for me. I’d like to think, even though I’m not biologically related, knowing my adoptive family‘s history gave me a sense of grounding in this larger familial context, and knowing all that I could about my personal history allowed me to more easily explain my own identity to my peers and to myself.
Bruce Feiler’s article, The Stories that Bind Us, ends with this argument: 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.
So I’ll leave you with this: Go eat some pie, share old and new family stories, and enjoy the leftovers!
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!