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 “The Secrets 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.