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Family Stories Help Kids Be Resilient “Oscillating Narratives” Are Healthiest

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, March 21, 2013

Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your parents went to school and how they met? Do you know the story of your birth?

Marshall Duke, a psychologist at Emory University and his colleague Robyn Fivush, director of Emory’s Family Narratives Lab, developed a measure that asks school children 20 questions about their families. They found that kids who know the most about their families tend to be the most resilient when they face adversity, and the measure tends to be a good predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.

In his New York Times column "Family Stories That Bind Us,” Bruce Feiler reports on the research and suggests the one most important thing you can do for your family is to develop a strong family narrative. Feiler, who is a scholar of religion and the Middle East, is also the author of the book The Secrets of Happy Families.

Feiler says Duke and Fivush have found kids who know their family history have a strong sense of their "intergenerational selves” and know they belong to something bigger than themselves. It also helps to have family traditions that children remember and carry on.

Psychologists say every family has some unifying narrative, Feiler reports, and they tend to take three shapes. The ascending narrative says: we started with nothing, overcame obstacles and succeeded. The descending narrative says: once we had it all, but we lost everything. The healthiest, according to Duke, is the oscillating narrative: we’ve had our ups and downs, our successes and failures, but we’ve always stuck together, no matter what happened.

Leaders in business and politics also use narratives to explain core meanings, Feiler writes, and he says the military has found that teaching recruits the history of their service is more effective than bullying in promoting camaraderie and unit cohesion. He quotes Commander David G. Smith, chairman of the department of leadership, ethics and law at the Naval Academy, who advises graduating seniors to take freshmen to cemeteries to see the graves of early naval heroes and aircraft displays on campus to help them build a sense of history.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  leaders  resilience 

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