On our recent family vacation to Florida Marc and I listened to bits of a few audio books, one being The Secret of Happy Families by Bruce Feiler which gives tips on making family life work better, and thus, be more pleasant. We’ll be implementing many of the morning ritual suggestions when school starts again in the fall. (For now we’re going with the “Get up whenever you feel like it and see what happens” plan for the summer. We’re executing it perfectly.) We also liked the idea of having a weekly family meeting to discuss what worked and didn’t work so well in our clan throughout the week. But I think the biggest thing I took away from the intro and first two chapters was the importance of telling our family story to our kids. In the book the author tells of a study done by two psychologists about how children deal with stress. They found that “The more children knew their family’s history the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem, and more successfully they believed their families functioned.” After 911 they studied the same families, and found the same thing to be true. “The children who knew more about their families proved to be more resilient, meaning they could moderate the effects of stress.” Sounds good to me. This is one child-rearing technique at which I should be able to succeed.
Lily often asks me to tell her about things I did as a child, and I remember asking the same of my mom. Even the smallest tale of summertime walks to the fountains on the KU campus, or where my brother and I went sledding as kids, or my childhood family vacations bring joy to her heart. I loved my own mother’s stories of picking apples in my great-grandmother’s orchard, fighting with her brothers, floating on a raft at the lake on a lazy Sunday afternoon. I didn’t know then that I was asking her to fill up my family-history tank so I could moderate stress, and neither does Lily. I just knew I liked it. Even the stories of mistakes and mess-ups were interesting to me. In Feiler’s book he also points out that of the three types of family narratives – the ascending narrative (we came from nothing), the descending narrative (we used to have it all) and the oscillating narrative (ups and downs), the last is the most helpful. The book states that “…children who have the most self-confidence have…a strong ‘intergenerational self.’ They know they belong to something bigger than themselves.” I want that for my children.
I have always had a solid sense of my heritage. We have a hard-bound book on the history of one side of my family, and my grandmother on the other side was, until her nineties, a walking encyclopedia of the other half of my roots. I didn’t always appreciate this wealth of information growing up. I took it for granted, thinking everyone knew that their great, great grandfather came to America in 1877 escaping religious persecution from the Russians. That everyone had family reunions with hundreds of people, where the oldest generation sang hymns in German and you could view photos of the family’s first homestead. Yeah, yeah, yeah, my teenage self thought. But though I didn’t appreciate it, I felt grounded. I didn’t know that my family history was a gift – to understand what came before and how it might shape my future. How it explained me.
I hope my children have the same sense of heritage. I want them to know what our family is and was, so that they can decide what it will be. They can continue the story with confidence and freedom. Moderate stress, feel part of a larger narrative, know that the ups and downs of life are to be expected. So I’ll be telling and re-telling the stories of my past to my kids. As much as they want, even when they don’t want, even when I’m tired and I’d rather not, even the parts that aren’t so pretty. My husband and I will be the story-tellers until they can take over. Until they see the big picture – the story arc of their ancestry – and begin adding the next chapter.