Living Your Family History

When I encounter a new, compelling parenting concept for the early childhood years, I often feel  disappointed. My youngest is a teenager and I realize there are no opportunities for me to turn back the clock and try motherhood from the get go. But as I read bestselling author Bruce Feiler’s column in The New York Times, The Stories that Bind Us, I wondered if his ideas about family history might be as applicable to those who parent a 7 year old as those whose “baby” is 17.

The opportunity for us weave our family history into the present has no expiration date.

In his book, The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Tell Your Family History, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More,  Feiler poses a fundamental question:  “What are the ingredients that make some families effective, resilient, happy?” The answer, he found, is in creating a “strong family narrative.”

In this article, Feiler draws on research by Dr. Marshall Duke and Dr. Robyn Fivush of Emory University who discovered that children who knew more about their families showed greater resiliency than those who knew little. Drs. Duke and Fivush believe that the “oscillating” family history, including both successes and setbacks, gives kids the strongest self-confidence.

Feiler also offers a supporting theory by Jim Collins, a management expert and author of Good to Great. Collins believes in the power of organizations and families alike in identifying core values and urges families to adopt a “mission statement,” much like corporations.

Feiler summarizes his beliefs:

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.

Clearly, instilling core values such as kindness, honesty, or a strong work ethic cannot begin too early. Telling the story of grandparents overcoming financial disaster or an aunt courageously battling health issues can provide kids with positive examples from which to draw.

It strikes me, though, that there are other stories best revealed to older kids, when they can understand that life is streaked with grey and not exclusively colored black or white.  If a family history includes chapters with complicated storylines, our older kids may take heart in knowing that challenges they experience have already been faced, and, one hopes, overcome, by those they know and trust the most.

The opportunity for us to weave our family history into the present never ends. Fortunately, this is one parenting concept that has no expiration date.

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  1. says

    I agree very much with laying down a foundation with family discussions. We did that, starting when my son began to wear glasses and I wanted him to learn the tools to deal with kids that might make fun of him, and that worked out really good, but I forgot to do it when he got older to give him tools to deal with “girls”. All I can say is that I wish we had…

  2. Carpool Goddess says

    We’ve always shared our family history and stories with our kids. Some stories we saved for when they were old enough to hear it. Not always easy, but necessary.

  3. Clearly Kristal says

    I read this NY Times article earlier in the week. I couldn’t agree more – family stories do tie us together. I think by sharing stories of struggles make our children stronger and more self confident. Life is not full of rainbows and roses. With a society that seems to embrace perfection and “having it all” – I’m afraid we are raising children that feel entitled. Here’s a post about my own family history that discusses this concept of entitlement: Sharing family stories and history with my children is why I started my blog and began writing my own book. I hope to share family life lessons of love, courage and hope.

    • says

      Kristal, having a chance to write about our own stories, and those of our families, is a wonderful way to come to a deeper understanding of lives. Good luck with your book – it sounds like a perfect idea for you.

  4. says

    I’ve never heard this discussed specifically before as an element of creating a happy family but it makes sense to me. When I think of our most family centric moments they are tied to us sitting around (usually at a meal) telling stories of our history. I feel connected to that narrative and it makes me feel lucky.

    • says

      Like so much solid parenting advice, this is just common sense and a very natural thing we do. The dinner table is the heart of our families, isn’t it?

  5. says

    Terrific post Mary. I never thought about it that way but it makes so much sense. Although my father’s family is from CT, in the 1800’s they had a “hunting house” in the Northern Neck of Virginia. When times were tough, they lived there. My mother lives there now and the house if full of stories. my great grandmother’s quilt, schoolbooks, pictures, a small cemetery with two babies, my great grandparents and a civil war veteran they called cousin bill who they took in as he was homeless. As i read your post, i realized how many stories, with valuable lessons were told around the dinner table when we would visit.

    • says

      Sandy, dinner tables are key to discussion but your family’s cabin sound quite amazing. How incredible that your mom lives there amidst so many family heirlooms. Treasured space.

  6. says

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