The Parents Yap About Family Histories: Does a Story Keep a Family Together?
Everyone has a back story. Do you know yours? Do your kids?
In a recent New York Times article, it was suggested that knowing your family's history is what will keep your family strong. That got us thinking. Do you agree? And what do your kids know about their history?
Tasha Schlake Festel
I don't know that we have a family story, some continuing narrative that binds our family together. I don't know that I had one as a kid, either, although I'm quite sure my father could tell it to me if I asked. He's good like that, always knows the history of the family. Genealogy is important to him; he's a family tree kind of guy. Perhaps it comes from being from an immigrant family. He came over on the boat from Germany with his parents and infant sister back in 1948. I'm sure it's a hell of a story. I know bits and pieces.
I know more about the story of my parents. And it's a great one. An old fashioned love story of high school sweethearts who stayed together through different colleges, married student housing (can you believe there was such a thing?), Vietnam, job transfers, family dramas, a new business, lean times, good times, and everything in between. My husband knows most of their story because it's an inspiration, and their relationship and the way they raised their kids - me and my sister - serve as a model for us.
I know how my in-laws met, and I know the basics of the ups and downs in their family story. But I don't know much about their parents, and if I don't know it, I'm pretty sure my kids don't know it either.
Oh my god! My family will crumble!
I've never thought all that much about learning the past because I've always been so concerned with the present, with creating a family story with my family. In the moment. But after reading this article, I'm wondering if I've missed something.
I understand the author's point - knowing your family's history strengthens the bond, but I'm not sure I completely agree with the conclusion. Knowing the story doesn't create closeness. Love, support, and respect create that. Knowing how it all happened enhances it.
Kids should know their personal histories. It helps them put their own lives into context. They know how they got where they are. Histories are full of "teachable moments." Sure, there are great and horrible historical figures from whom lessons can be learned, but maybe those lessons are more valuable if they're closer to home.
Now that I think about it, it's probably time I know the rest of my story in order to write more of our story. I need the prequel. I should know more about my grandparents, the home they built and the well they dug with their own hands, their kids - my father. And it's time I write the next chapter, the one where I moved to Boston, met a cute boy, fell in love, got married and had two fabulous kids.
It's a great story.
About two years ago, my then nine-year-old daughter took a tumble off a curb and punched a big hole through her upper lip with her front teeth. She was bloody and scared and a little traumatized, but she settled down once we talked to the triage nurse in the ER and took a seat in the waiting room. There were several other kids her age there, all holding ice packs to various injured body parts. My daughter noticed that all the parents in the waiting room were having the same conversation with their kids. Every parent — including me — was talking about their own experiences with Emergency Room-worthy injuries. I told my tales of thrice breaking my left arm all before the fifth grade. We eavesdropped on other parents’ stories of failure to fly off of bunk beds, helmetless spills off of dirt bikes, and tumbles out of tree houses. Every kid walked away with the same lesson: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and if it doesn’t make you stronger, at least it gives you a good story to tell.
These kinds of stories don’t tell a kid how they fit into a family’s history, but they show a kid that they are in the process of creating their own history and writing their own story. It’s nice to know that, according to the article, all of my endless prattling on is actually good for my kids! Yay! Of course most of my rambling is about myself, and my own childhood. Usually these ramblings are brought on by an experience I had that is similar to something my kids are going through now. I think it helps them to know that other people have been in the same situations and lived to tell the tale.
My kids love to hear stories about their actual history— how they were born and when they were babies. The one story that really connects my kids to their family roots is the story behind the unusual spelling of our last name. It is spelled “Martine” but pronounced like James Bond’s favorite drink. My husband’s grandfather’s family spelled their name the “traditional” way, with an “i” at the end, but somehow the name was misspelled on Grandfather’s birth certificate. As he got older, he wanted to set himself apart from his brothers, so he kept the new spelling. He spelled it with an “e” on his marriage license and on all five of his own kids’ birth certificates. All of my husband’s great uncles and aunts are all Martinis with an “i” and my husband’s immediate family are the only ones with an “e.”
When my first child was born, we briefly joked about the idea of changing the spelling on her birth certificate so she wouldn’t have to correct everyone’s mispronunciation of her name. We didn’t do it. Her name is part of who she is. Now her great-grandfather’s story is her story, too.
A strong family narrative. According to Bruce Feiler’s New York Times article, “The Stories That Bind Us,” a strong family narrative is key to a child’s emotional health and happiness. I read the article and immediately thought, ‘Yes! A thousand times, yes! This taps into something that's been brewing in my mind for a long time that I’ve never seemed to be able to articulate.’
I found the whole thing fascinating and simple at the same time. The author reported that anchoring a child in his history with stories from his family’s past makes him more resilient and gives him the security of feeling- no!- knowing that he is part of something bigger than himself and longer than his generation. Basically, the author was saying that knowing what you came from helps you understand what you are capable of and who you are. It helps plant in you a sense of belonging.
How is this news earth shattering? I mean, having a strong family narrative would seem to require communication, both sharing and listening, and all that communication would mean quality time spent with family members. Furthermore, I’m going to presume that bothering to share family stories with one’s children indicates a level of care and concern for them, as well as a mindfulness of the importance of family history. So, the real value of this article is for those who can benefit from adopting this point of view as their own.
The people I envision benefitting from the news in this article fall into a few categories.
- Technically, fostering a strong family narrative is a principle without bias. It does not discriminate based upon socio-economic status. This is good news for people without means. It doesn’t cost a penny to share stories of family history, and every family’s got a history. Developing a strong family narrative doesn’t even have to rely on a classically intact family of mother, father and kids. The possibility to strengthen our children’s resilience, emotional health and overall happiness lies within the reach of anyone determined to try. Periodically, I have my mother tell me stories of when she and my dad were first married in the fifties, living in a sloped-ceiling, top-floor apartment. It couldn’t have been easy by any stretch of the imagination, but hearing about their grocery budget of two dollars per week and their nightly meals of pancakes made with water while playing cards to keep their minds off the pancakes still strikes me as ridiculously romantic.
- If a family is stable financially and emotionally, but has fallen into the trap of a crazy work and activities schedule, this is great help for those interested in re-centering and gaining a foothold in their kids’ future. Sit down with them and tell them a good story or two. I suggest starting with something unusual or downright shocking. My personal favorite came from my Nanna. She told of the story of her mother-in-law, Grammy Kimball, long-separated from her husband, chasing her man friend around a car with a double-bitted ax at the revelation of his infidelity. Later, I found out that my father- still a young boy- watched from the window and he remarked to me in the retelling, “There was no doubt in my mind that if she’d havecaught him, she’d have killed him!”
- My personal favorite is the category I like to call, “If all else fails.” This is the point of view which gives me hope that, even if I never conquer my quick temper and my poor housekeeping skills, my kids will somehow turn out okay, with their senses of humor and their place in history intact. They each know their birth story, their birthdates and the birthdates of their family members and which exciting places they got to go while in utero. They know how each member of their parents’ families is connected by blood or marriage, their varied ethnic origins and the fact that their great-great-great-grandfather was an emancipated slave. I can’t wait to tell them the stories about how my parents met, but that will have to wait a few years...
I love how Feiler breaks it down in the end, so if you’re too lazy to read the whole article, pay attention to this:
The bottom line: if you want a happier family, create, refine and retell the story of your family’s positive moments and your ability to bounce back from the difficult ones. That act alone may increase the odds that your family will thrive for many generations to come.
Postscript: If you are a geek and the opposite of lazy, check out the entirety of Bruce Feiler’s book, The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Morning, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smart, Go Out and Play, and Much More.