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Every person has ups and downs. But kids don’t know that. Sometimes children think they’re the only ones to ever have failed at something, the only ones to have ever wished for something that seems out of reach, the only ones to have ever been afraid. Knowing that ups and downs are normal – and that the downs are always followed by ups – is important. How can we send that message to our children so they have this truth to fall back on in hard times?

Researcher Marshall Duke has the answer and it’s a simple one you can start working on today. The answer is “by sharing family stories.” Children who have heard tales of their parents’, grandparents’ and other relatives’ lives are more resilient and better able to cope with adversity.

According to Duke, family stories follow one of three general patterns. There’s first the rising narrative: “When we started out, we had nothing. Then we worked hard and became successful.” This narrative is the classic American boot-strapping story, of course, and it’s the basis for lots of books and movies.

Then there’s the falling narrative: “We used to be important and happy. Now we’re nothing.” This narrative captures a previous state of grace that could be recaptured. It might even motivate a child to work hard and restore the family’s rightful place in the world.

But the most motivating narrative of all is the narrative of ups and downs: “We’ve had hard times and we’ve had good times. But through it all, we’ve cared about each other and made it through.” The key thing is, these narratives – all three of them – are not delivered just like that, as two-sentence stories. They are built up over time, through anecdotes, remembrances, and object lessons that gradually fill in the picture of a family with a rich past… and a rich future.

Duke’s researchers asked families of 9-to-12 year-old children and then families of 14- to 16 year-olds a set of 20 questions, designed to assess how much members knew about their own family history. The researchers also listened to the sharing of family narratives by taping dinner table conversations. All this data was counted, and then compared to the results of tests of what is known as “self-agency” and emotional stability taken by children in the participating families. These were simple questions and the bits of family history that were inserted into conversations were ordinary sorts of things. The families didn’t know that researchers were counting family lore.

But the results were astonishing. Children and teens in families in which family stories were routinely shared and who knew many of the answers to the 20 questions – because these questions had been part of shared lore in the past – were overwhelmingly more self-confident, more resilient in the face of problems, and happier than kids who heard less and knew less about their families.

We could ask why?

Duke and his team believe the answer lies in a sense of an “intergenerational self.” It helps to know we are each part of something bigger than ourselves. It helps to know that others have had a bumpy road too and have managed, one way or another. Even if a child never met his grandparents or great-grandparents, knowing they bravely crossed oceans or borders to get here or defended their families and country in time of war or raised children with little help, all these stories send the message: “you are a member of a family of strong people.”

So, don’t hold back. Tell tales about your family and about the ancestral family. Dig out old photographs or talk with the family elders. And see if you – and your kids – can answer “yes” to Duke’s 20 questions:

1. Do you know how your parents met?
2. Do you know where your mother grew up?
3. Do you know where your father grew up?
4. Do you know where some of your grandparents grew up?
5. Do you know where some of your grandparents met?
6. Do you know where your parents were married?
7. Do you know what went on when you were being born?
8. Do you know the source of your name?
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?
11. Do you know which person in the family you act most like?
12. Do you know some of the illnesses and injuries that your parents experienced when they were younger?
13. Do you know some of the lessons that your parents learned from good or bad experiences?
14. Do you know some things that happened to your mom or dad when they were in school?
15. Do you know the national background of your family (such as English, German, Russian, etc)?
16. Do you know some of the jobs that your parents had when they were young?
17. Do you know some awards that your parents received when they were young?
18. Do you know the names of the schools that your mom went to?
19. Do you know the names of the schools that your dad went to?
20. Do you know about a relative whose face “froze” in a grumpy position because he or she did not smile enough?*

* If you’ve ever told your child that making a face will cause it to stay that way, Duke’s research team understands. They realize that not every family story will be strictly true or agreed-upon by everyone in the family. Accuracy isn’t so important as telling the tales the way you remember them. And, by the way, 15% of Duke’s participants answered “yes” to question 20!


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.