Use stories about ancestors when raising children

Recently I sat at a table of fathers and listened to their discussion about how to best prepare their rapidly maturing children for the challenges of our time. Later in the evening, I read a fascinating article that, at least to some degree, answered the questions from the earlier discussion.

Marshall Duke of Emory University has studied the role family stories play in the social development of children. His conclusion is that children who know the stories of their ancestors, both immediate and distant, develop an identity based in part on what Duke calls the intergenerational self. An ability to find one’s place within a family narrative that gives context to one’s place in the greater world around us.

“It is this intergenerational self and the personal strength and moral guidance that seem to derive from it that are associated with increased resilience, better adjustment, and improved chances of good clinical and educational outcomes.” M.P. Duke, Psychotherapy Theory, Research, Practice, Training (2008).

If this “intergenerational self” can strengthen and improve the lives of our children then how do we establish a family narrative that makes this phenomena possible. Duke found that the family narrative is formulated and communicated in the telling and retelling of family stories in conjunction with family events, events as mundane as family meal time to more celebrated occasions such as vacations and holiday celebrations.

“The data indicated that these very same regular family dinners, yearly vacations and holiday celebrations occur more frequently in families that have high levels of cohesiveness and that they contribute to the development of a strong sense of … this … intergenerational self.”

Duke further concluded that the narrative could vary widely in context of success, failure, recovery, sickness, health, happiness, sadness, thrilling or mundane. The important element was that the child found a place to belong within a narrative that was greater than self and more enduring than a lifetime.

As we seek to find ways to build a solid foundation for our children it may serve us well to know that one very powerful and effective element can be the simple telling of family stories stories that in some deeply human way will give our children the context of who they are and what they can become.

Bishop Greg Barlow is bishop of Minot 3rd Ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Minot.