The idea that telling your children about their family history is important could have been included in the Family Unity post. But I felt it was so vital I wanted it to have a post all its own. I always believed that telling children stories about your life, as their parent, would help them see you as a real person, someone who made mistakes and learned from them, and this would in turn help you have a closer relationship now and in the future. However, I did not realize the great significance of telling these stories and those of extended relatives and ancestors, until I read a book review of “TheSecrets of Happy Families“ by Bruce Feiler.
One of Feiler’s main “secrets” is to tell your children the story of their family. Feiler refers to research studies showing that children who know more about their parents, grandparents, and other relatives – both their ups and their downs – have higher self-esteem and greater confidence to confront their own challenges. Knowing more about family history turned out to be the single biggest predictor of a child’s emotional well-being!
In this New York Times article he describes why and how he started trying to find the secrets to happy families, and how he was surprised at the large and lasting effect telling children their family stories had. He discovered research from Dr. Marshall Duke who, with his colleague, developed a scale called “Do You Know?” It asked children if they knew where their grandparents grew up, where their parents went to high school and how they met, about an illness or other tragedy in their family, and many other such questions. The researchers were astounded to discover “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.”
It makes sense that knowing these stories helps children feel a part of something bigger than themselves and gives them something to hold on to in times of difficulty. Children know that people in general crossed the Atlantic and came to America for freedom (at various stages in history), but to know that your ancestor specifically was one of them – to know a detailed story about their difficulties on the trip and getting settled once they were here – can be very impactful. It gives children a special connection with someone who has overcome great odds. They come to believe that they have the same strength – it is in their blood. That is just one example of a story you might tell. Every family and every person has had triumphs and difficulties. It is so important to share these with your children.
Some parents might want to emphasize the successes, but learning about the struggles is what really sticks with children. The “overcoming obstacles” stories from your ancestors teach them that when challenges come, if we keep on working, things do get better eventually. It is not abstract knowledge; it is just not a lesson you sit down and present to your children about how hard work pays off. It is a first-person account, a family story of someone they are related to, and the power of that cannot be underestimated. It is huge! Additionally, telling your children these stories will draw you closer together because they are your shared history. They link you to each other as well as to your ancestors.
Tell your children about your life, about their birth and life, and especially about the lives of their grandparents and ancestors. This might require some research on your part. Reach out to relatives and ask them to tell you (or your child) about their lives. You can also ask those relatives how you can get more information about your ancestors. Build an intergenerational story that shows your children they are part of something large and meaningful. Be sure to include the happy moments and the difficult ones; you will give your children the skills and the confidence they need to overcome their current or future hardships.
Much of what is in this post will probably not be new to you. But hopefully it will be a good reminder of how to create positive feelings and memories in your families. Those positive experiences can strengthen you and your children as you go through the more difficult times. Family unity is so important because everyone wants to be a part of something. If children don’t feel their families are something special and important to be a part of, they will find other groups where they feel included and wanted. Family unity can come from many different sources, and it’s okay if your family doesn’t do all of these things listed below. I’m going to talk about traditions, family pride, and family culture as ways to build family unity.
Most people have family traditions and know of their importance. It means a lot to children to do the same thing each year at certain holidays or seasons. Sometimes you will continue the traditions you or your spouse had growing up, and sometimes you will change them to fit your family’s needs. It’s important to be deliberate (as opposed to sporadic) about these traditions – write them down and make a note to do them every year. It doesn’t matter so much what you do or how many traditions you have, as long as you have something and do it consistently. Children will start to notice the traditions and look forward to them.
One yearly tradition we have enjoyed is having “special time” with each child. Once a year we plan a one-on-one time between each parent and child (so 8 combinations in all) where the child can choose what to do. We used to do this more often, but as schedules got busier we felt like once a year was the right balance. It almost always involves a meal or a treat, and the other activities have ranged from visiting the nature center, going bowling, going for a bike ride, or going to the mall. It is a designated time to talk individually with that child, build the relationship, show her how important she is, and give her an opportunity to talk about her life. Hopefully we have good communication with our children throughout the year and keep up on what is going on with them, but knowing we have this once a year “check-in” is important to both us as parents and to the children. It has been very rewarding and sometimes very meaningful. It takes some advanced scheduling and prioritizing, but that demonstrates to the children that they are significant to us. These same activities (going for a treat or on a bike ride) come up spontaneously throughout the year, but there is something powerful about a scheduled event for the child to look forward to.
Another annual tradition that has been worthwhile to us is reviewing our Family Timeline. We do this once a year at one of our weekly family meetings, around the time of our wedding anniversary. We put a long line of masking tape across the carpet and set papers with different years at intervals. We place pictures, scrapbook pages, and other mementos along the tape to designate the important events in our family: our wedding (the creation of our family), graduations, moves, births and baptisms of children, anything that has importance. We talk about these events and what they meant to us. My husband and I tell stories about how we met and about our wedding day. It is so fun to share these things with our children and teach them about the creation and building of our wonderful family. We usually end up looking through all the scrapbooks, talking, laughing, and reminiscing.
It is also beneficial to have a tradition of creating and reviewing family and individual goals. This could be done at the beginning of the calendar year or the school year. Goals help your family define where they are and where they want to go. We all know the importance of articulating our goals and setting a vision for what we want to do and achieve in life. Family and individual goals can be long term (all family members will go to college), and these can be reviewed every year. Short term goals can be extrapolated from the long term goals (get 3.8 GPA, for example), and other short term goals can be identified, also (such as, learn to ski).
In addition to annual family traditions, there are also weekly and daily family traditions. Going to church, having a family meeting, or going for a Saturday bike ride can be some of your weekly family traditions. Daily traditions might include regular family dinner; a routine for waking up, saying goodbye, or going to bed; or family prayer. Being purposeful about these smaller, more frequent traditions means making them a priority and making them a meaningful part of your family. All these activities will provide positive interactions between you and your children and become the fabric of who your family is.
The next category of family unity is family pride or family identity. This involves creating an individualized spirit for your family and getting your children excited to be a part of it. One idea to build family pride is to have a family motto. The family motto and other elements of family identity can be decided upon and reinforced in your Family Meetings. Because we have four daughters, our family motto is, “Sisters forever, friends for life.” It reminds us of our uniqueness in having all girls, and how we can and will be friends for our lifetime and a family forever. I have the girls say it every morning as we have hugs and prayers before going out the door to school. Some families also create a family flag, song, cheer, or mission statement, depending on the personalities and desires of the family members. Corporations know the importance of mission statements and mottos to give all those involved with the company a sense of pride and togetherness, as well as a vision for where they are going and what their goals are.
Beyond our main family motto we also have 6 family values. We created these based on our family interests and priorities and things we hoped our family would become. Some of them are: Hoelzers love to learn! Hoelzers are hilarious! Hoelzers are happy! These add to our family identity and help our children feel a part of something bigger than themselves. They have responsibilities to this family and they receive benefits from being a part of it. I can refer to these values in various circumstances for motivation and positive reminders. For example, if a child doesn’t want to go to school I can say, “Hoelzers love to learn! The best place to learn new things is at school.”
The last method for building family unity that I want to talk about is creating your family culture. You create a family culture by doing your regular, everyday things, whether you are aware of it or not! What types of foods you eat, what songs you sing, what topics you discuss at dinner, these all combine to make up who you are as a family. There are many ways to build a positive family culture, if you will be aware of and take advantage of the opportunities. You can sing songs with your children while doing dishes, doing hair, in the car, or brushing teeth. Children love music and singing teaches them a lot about speech patterns and sentence structure, as well as creates positive feelings. I like to sing “positive message” songs to young children, such as “When We’re Helping, We’re Happy.” Sometimes I make up words to familiar tunes to teach or reinforce a positive behavior.
You can learn new songs or poems as a family while traveling. You can continuously be looking for ways to teach children new things or tell them stories. I’m not very good at making up stories, so I often resort to books I’ve read or movies I’ve seen. It’s a fun and creative challenge to take the story down to their developmental level! It’s also important to tell them stories about yourself and other family members. See more about this in an upcoming post titled the Power of Family History.
Part of the family culture is also the home environment. Family pictures and other pictures or important quotes on the wall and around the house can be silent teachers. You don’t have to say, “Our family is important” because the presence of the pictures will say it for you. The same goes for displaying children’s artwork or family history mementos. Walk through your house and ask yourself, What message is this room giving my children? What can they learn from just looking around? This is the environment your children will be in for many hours of most days of their lives. Make sure what they see around them is giving them messages you want them to receive.
Doing all these things to create family unity shows your children they are important to you and that your family matters. Children feel safe and secure knowing that they are a part of something important and fun and that traditions and activities will be the same week to week, year to year.