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
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