Contributed by Jody McVittie
When my children were little every now and then we’d share stories at dinner. Some of our favorites included mistakes. Like the time we got to the airport only to realize that one child had left her shoes at home. Or the time that the very curious cat found herself head down at the bottom of the tiny space between the hot water heater and the wall and how we rescued her. Or how we rescued the same cat when she found herself in the space between the walls in the house.
Sometimes the stories were woven with courage. I’ll never forget the morning we sat at breakfast long after the food was gone listening to Grandpa tell us his stories about flying in a bomber during World War II. We got to imagine him in the plane freezing cold because the entire crew had given their jackets to the man who lay in the nose cone of the plane for protection. In the eyes of the crew this was the only man on board who “had to live” because he had children at home.
Stories. What do stories have to do with resilience? Turns out that the stories we know about ourselves and the stories we know about our family make a big difference. Our sense of connection to our inter-generational family helps us moderate the impact of stress.
Marshall Duke, a psychologist from Emory University, began exploring resilience in children in the 90’s. His sense was that when children knew about their families, that they handled the ups and downs of life more easily. He and a colleague, Dr. Fivush developed a 20-question survey called “Do You Know” that they gave to children to find out what kinds of things they knew about their families. As reported recently in the New York Times, “the more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.” Much to their surprise, “the “Do You Know?” scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.”
Drs. Duke and Fivush found three basic kinds of family stories or narratives: the kind that imply that things are getting better (an ascending narrative), those that suggest that they are getting worse (a descending narrative) and what they call an oscillating narrative. These are stories that include both stories of success and failure, stories of living with and overcoming adversity. Not surprisingly, children who knew their families through stories of success and failure fared the best in moments of challenge.
How do you weave these threads of resilience into the fabric of your family?
Build rituals and traditions. They become part of your family’s story.
Create a family journal. Document through writing and pictures some of your family’s history.
Have family story night. At the dinner table you and your children can share some of their favorite celebrations, playful moments, challenges, mistakes and learning. Share how you bounced back from more difficult moments as well as the positive ones.
Learn more about your family. Help your children ask older relatives about their stories. StoryCorps has ideas for documenting family stories.
Weaving your own family narrative, it turns out, may not only increase the resilience and happiness in your own family but may mean that your family may thrive for generations to come.
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