The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.
This line comes from a recent New York Times piece about the importance of understanding from whence you came. The more you know about the characters, settings, and other elements that contribute to your life story, the better prepared you are to make intentional choices about your own life.
You can be a more sophisticated author of your life if you have a strong sense of your biography:
Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know where your parents met? Do you know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of your birth?
Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivush asked those questions of four dozen families in the summer of 2001, and taped several of their dinner table conversations. 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 successfully they believed their families functioned.
Both of my parents are deceased, but as child and young adult, I did have a lot of access to family history. We had dinner table conversations as I was growing up, and I spent quite a bit of time around relatives in various cities. I had a good sense of who we were as a family on both sides. But I didn’t find out everything. There are gaps in my knowledge, some of which may never be closed.
Gaps aside, Drs. Duke and Fivush speak about the importance of a more global understanding of the family’s development over time. Specifically they mention three types of narratives:
- the ascending narrative – think rags to riches, or nothing to something;
- the descending narrative – we had it all and lost it; and
- the oscillating narrative – we’ve had good times and bad times, but here we are.
Dr. Duke said that children who have the most self-confidence have what he and Dr. Fivush call a strong “intergenerational self.” They know they belong to something bigger than themselves.
What about you? Do you know your family narrative? Do you have a sense of belonging to something bigger than yourself?
Excerpts from The Stories That Bind Us.