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Monday, 15 April 2013

The power of family stories: why family narratives matter

My son has always been fascinated by stories about his first few years of life. He loves hearing how his grandmother and great-grandmother took turns holding him when he first arrived in this world. He finds it funny when I tell him how nervous I was when I brought him home from the hospital; I had no idea what to do with a squalling newborn. And he is particularly delighted by stories about the naughty things he did when he was a toddler.  His fascination with family stories doesn't end with himself though. He asks endless questions about my childhood and that of my husband. Were we like him? Did we get into trouble?

While I've always humored my son and told him these family stories, I never realized how valuable these narratives are. Recently, I read an article titled The Stories That Bind Us in the New York Times about the importance of family narratives. In this article, Bruce Feiler, author of The Secrets of Happy Families, asserts that children who grow up with a strong sense of their own family history are happier and more successful in life.

Feiler describes a study done by Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivush in 2001. The researchers asked four dozen children a series of questions about their own families. They then "compared the children's results to a battery of psychological tests the children had taken and reached an 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 successfuly they believed their families functioned." Feiler concludes that a child's knowledge of his own family's history is a massive predictor of the child's pyschological and emotional health and happiness.

Feiler believes that family narratives give children a sense of belonging to a larger entity. They are part of a team, and their team has a long history. This sense of belonging gives a child the security he/she needs to make his way in a difficult world; the sense of security that comes from a strong knowledge of one's family history helps build resilience. The best narratives, according to Feiler, are those that teach a child that a family has ups and downs, but through it all the family sticks together.

As someone who is fascinated by the power of stories, I'm drawn to this idea that family narratives, like all the other stories we hear when we're young, shape our lives. Like foundational stories (myths, fairy tales, children's stories), these family stories too give us scripts for our lives. They teach us about who we are, where we come from, what we value, and where we belong.

These days, I don't wait for my son to badger me for family stories. I volunteer stories about my childhood and my parents' lives  because I know that they are important.



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