“The Story” – What We Tell Our Family About Our Family

family portrait 32513The narrative we share with our children about the lives of their grandparents, aunts and uncles, or in some cases, relatives that are no longer living, can provide children with pieces of information that not only make them feel more confident, these stories inform our children’s core values and  provide them a stronger sense of control over their lives.


Emory University’s Dr Marshal Duke began an exploration into the myth and ritual of American family life in the mid 1990s, with the help and value input from his wife, Sara Duke-a professional consultant who specializes in children with learning disabilities.  It was Mrs Duke who first noticed that children who know a lot about their families tend to do better when facing a challenge.  Based on this observation and with the help of Dr Robin Fivush, the Dukes and Dr Fivush collaborated on a series of questions, all starting with the phrase “Do you know…”.

From these “Do you know” questions the team began to ask families, in very informal settings, a series of 20 questions, some of which were:  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?  The results of questions, answered by approximately 50 families involved in this informal study, along with a psychological testing done on the children for comparison purposes, demonstrated that the children who knew more about their family’s history, had a much stronger sense of control of their emotional well-being, as well as higher self-esteem and a  belief that they were members of a successfully functioning family.


Psychologists have discovered that most family narratives appear to be told, mostly by the parents, in one of two very common tales:

1)  When my grandparents moved to this country they started off with very little.  Through hard work, my grandparents opened a small store, and while grandfather went to and finished high school grandmother stayed at home to raise the children.  All of their children went to college.  I went to college and when the time comes, you…

2)  Our family has known some financial success, however we lost everything due to…


However, a most helpful story to share with a child is one that is more explanatory, one with a more complete and relatable narrative.  Something like:  Dear child, our family has had our ups and downs.  Grandfather started a business long ago and we did just fine.  Grandmother was a nurse and the two of them were loved by everyone in their community.  Though they did suffer a setback when their house burned down….

Using honesty when sharing the family narrative helps children to understand that they are part of something much bigger than themselves. Some of our stories are not as happy as others.  However, we still need to work hard at telling the stories, without shame to our children, when we believe they are capable of understanding how these things can happen in our families.  Truth in family story sharing can also open up our children to honestly sharing their thoughts and feeling with us.  Maybe they won’t feel so afraid to discuss their challenges with school or difficulties with bullies because they are already comfortable with having an open dialogue at home.




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