…Ray Charles was shot down / But he got up…
What family stories do your kids know?
What stories do you remember from your grandparents?
Which grandparent stories do you think your grandchildren should know?
These are important questions simply because knowing the family narrative is a key to resilience in children and young adults…and likely all of us.
(You can read a prettier version of this on Medium. Please Clap if you do. Also, I’m slowly adding family and friends to my mailing list. This might mean you.)
…researchers at Emory did a study that showed that the kids who know more about their family history had a greater belief that they could control their world and a higher degree of self-confidence. It was the number one predictor of a child’s emotional well-being. (emphasis mine.)– Bruce Feiler.
At Emory University in Atlanta, Marshall Duke at their Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life and Robin Fivush of the Family Narratives Lab have been researching resilience and identity formation.
(The collage images are from a visual analysis of mine.)
In a series of studies, Fivush and Duke gave children, adolescents, and young adults a battery of psychological tests. The intent was to find the factors affecting children’s well-being. Sparked by an insight from Duke’s child psychologist wife, Sara, they added a new test of their own: the “Do You Know?” scale.
The test consisted of 20 questions that gauge a child’s knowledge of their family history. Examples:
- Do you know where your grandparents grew up?
- Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school?
- Do you know where your parents met?
- Do you know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family?
- Do you know the story of your birth?
- Do you know about a relative whose face “froze” in a grumpy position because he or she did not smile enough? (My favorite.)
Knowledge of family stories stood out as the main factor in predicting emotional well-being or, as Duke puts it, “increased resilience, better adjustment, and improved chances of good clinical and educational outcomes!”
Duke stresses that it isn’t merely knowing the stories in an abstract sense that is important. Instead, knowing stories provides an indicator of a family that spends time-sharing and re-sharing the stories that make up their family narrative.
9/11 happened mid-way through one of their studies, allowing them to research emotional recovery from that event.
“Once again,” Dr. Duke reports, “the ones who knew more about their families proved to be more resilient, meaning they could moderate the effects of stress.”
This was great news to me. It confirmed my intuition on the centrality of the family stories-telling that had nurtured me.
Duke, Fivush, et al. focus on folks younger than 20 in Caucasian and African-American families in contemporary United States (Atlanta, Georgia, to be specific) and point out themselves the need to widen the scope culturally.
But let’s take it further. Only some of us are children or young adults…although many of us prefer to believe we are. What about 20-somethings out in the world? What about seniors often living alone?
Family structure is currently very fluid: what about story-telling, not among the family we’re born into, but among the family we choose?
I think it needs to go further. One of my ongoing obsessions is evolution and, specifically, human evolution. If the contemporary US nuclear family is a bit off the norm globally, it’s positively bizarre from the perspective of the past and will likely seem odd a few hundred years into the future.
How do we assemble our story tribe as our family structure has come unglued?
If knowing stories about family…about ‘people like us’…provide a cornerstone of resiliency, then right now, when times are maximally stressful if not full out batshit crazy, is the time to grab on to your stories. Chances are good that your progeny (physical, emotional, or spiritual) are going to need them!
Above is one of my favorite photos! Taken in 1947, it shows a Kung! story-teller. The photo is great as a whole and wonderful in its details.
The Kung! are often studied as one of the few existing societies that (arguably) mirrors our lifestyle during the first 50,000 years of human history.
Story-telling is a central occupation among the Kung! A deep description of what story-telling does needs to encompass the Kung! as well as the families in the Emory University study representing our current culture.
My base assumption: stories are key to a meaningful world.
Stories have a social function. Stories create personal and cultural identity. Stories define our sense of possibility, and they help preserve touchstone values. In cases where history has been suppressed or lineage erased, family stories become the only vehicle for smuggling reality forward until it can be acknowledged by ‘official’ culture as family stories from the African-American community have been doing. Stories are affirmation and resistance.
Stories also have an individual function: if Jung and Campbell are correct, our psychological growth follows a narrative structure.
One last thought. If knowing stories about family…about ‘people like us’…provide a cornerstone of resiliency, then right now, when times are maximally stressful if not full out batshit crazy, is the time to grab on to your stories. Chances are good that your progeny (physical, emotional, or spiritual) are going to need them!
Further reading and video:
- There is a youTube presentation of findings by Robin Fivush (Robin appears at minute 28:00) that’s quite good.
- Articles: The Stories That Bind Us by Bruce Feiler, New York Times, 3/15/2013
- The Stories That Bind Us: What Are the Twenty Questions? by Marshall P Duke, Huffington Post, 5/23/2013
- 6 things the happiest families all have in common by Eric Barker, This Week, 9/3/2014
This story has been reworked from its first publication (circa 2013) as part of series in a more or less failed web experiment of mine. The challenge I posed myself was to port face to face story-trading into a social media. We could do more casual conversation online (Facebook, Twitter, now other up through TikTok), but deeper conversation fractured into one-way channels…blogs, that sort of thing.
I did manage to extrude an oral history of the Berkeley backpacking biz. If you Google sufficiently obscure shit, I get top ranking. I isolated a whole series of challenges. I learned a lot. I live to fight another day. But ultimately, the website never did what I hoped it would do.
My intent here is to bring that ‘story of story’ content across to Medium and then later extend it, alternating between personal stories and more abstract and research-oriented pieces such as this article.
Thanks for reading.
My mailing list and various projects can be found at altabor.org.