My family and I are on our family vacation, visiting my parents, my siblings, my hometown. We have a lot to celebrate: babies being born, races being run, uncles going abroad. My boys have been staying up late and our normal guidelines about desserts have basically been thrown out the window. Still, I consider this time some of the most important and healthful of our entire year.
That’s because it is one of just a couple of times when my kids get to be around their grandparents, their aunts and uncles, great-aunts and great-uncles, cousins, and their only living great-grandpa the one my older son is named after. They get to see the places I grew up, to jump on the trampoline I jumped on as a kid, even sleep in my childhood bed. They get to see how my family handles events, be a part of our traditions, and hear the stories that make up our family lore.
More importantly, they start to become a part of that family lore a part of a story that goes back for generations and that can teach them how they fit into the world and that they are not alone in it. Their heritage is beginning to anchor them and help them understand that the ups and downs of life are . . . just a part of life.
Bruce Feiler’s recently released book The Secrets of Happy Families: How to Improve Your Morning, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smart, Go Out and Play, and Much More, highlights the importance of family narratives in helping children become grounded, confident, and resilient. In an essay published in the New York Times, adapted from the book, Feiler talks about how even knowing the answers to simple questions like where their grandparents grew up and where their parents went to school can bolster children’s self-esteem and give them a greater sense of control over their lives.
He also discusses the way we tell our family stories: Do we talk about how when we came to America, we had nothing and every generation has improved on that impoverished beginning? Do we talk only about the good old days, when things were so much better than they are now? Or do we include the stories of success turning to failure turning to success again? Those the “oscillating family narratives” are, according to Dr. Marshall Duke, a psychologist at Emory University, the most important. They help children learn that they will always have their family to fall back on when things get rough and that they are not alone in their own struggles, and that their parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles have all been through it before.
The past few weeks I’ve been telling a lot of stories to my kids: about how my fifth great-grandmother left her home in Norway to come to America because of her faith, about how their great-uncle ate so many carrots as a child that he had perfect eyesight and became a fighter pilot, about how my siblings and I used to play board games late into the night once we no longer had to wake up early for school.
And I’ve been taking lots of pictures of people and places to help my kids remember and to show them where they come from, how they fit into the family, and who they have to rely on. If all goes well, these times of late nights and flowing sugar will end up being some of the best medicine I can give them to help them survive the stresses of their lives.