Calm down, tiger parents!
Instead of fretting about the number of hours your child puts in at the piano, or whether she aced that math test, sit down and tell her a story.
According to Bruce Feiler, the author The Secrets of Happy Families, “The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.” Which means you should tell your family stories — and do it early and often.
The secrets of happy families
Writing in The New York Times, Feiler cites research showing that children who have a strong sense of family history are happier and more resilient than those who do not. According to these findings, “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.”
Confident children, according to research, have a strong “intergenerational self,” according to Feiler: “They know they belong to something bigger than themselves.” The healthiest family narratives don’t idealize the past but instead tell a story of ups and downs in fortune, of families experiencing triumphs and hardship alike — and coming out the other side.
Snakes in the house
Since reading Feiler’s article, I’ve been thinking about the family stories I grew up with, and wishing I had more. There’s the story of the elaborate menagerie of snakes my father and his brother kept in the basement — a secret from my dainty, squeamish grandmother, who had an advanced case of ophidiophobia. When she discovered one day that hundreds of snakes were slithering beneath her house she became hysterical, and the boys were forced to set all the snakes free.
My father grew up to be a marine biologist, my uncle a writer and a naturalist, and both are passionate about nature and the environment. The influence of their stories is hard to calculate exactly, but environmentalism is a powerful current running through my generation of the family, and I can even see the trickle down effect. My daughter is devoted to animals, won’t eat meat, and volunteers at the SPCA whenever she gets the chance.
Past is prologue
I’m afraid my kids' collection of family legend is a little on the sparse side. Most of our relatives live far away, and at family reunions everyone tends to be very much in the present, so they haven’t had the experience of sitting around the fireplace, soaking in family yarns. It’s also tempting to avoid the darker stories when we talk to our kids — divorce, failure, and other wrong turns — to protect them, but also to protect ourselves.
So since reading Feiler’s article, I’ve been experimenting with spreading family lore. Yesterday on the way to school I told my daughter about moving and going to a new school in sixth grade. She starts high school in the fall, and she’s worried about not having any friends at her new school. I told her about eating lunch alone the first few days, and having no one to play with at recess. And about how I gradually made friends — one, and then another, until I had a close circle of beloved companions.
Back to the future
Another benefit of telling our stories: as I talked it took me back, temporarily, to my lonely sixth grade self. As adults we tend to gloss over the past and the vividness of the feelings we had as children, but talking about it plunged me right back there, and gave me a keener sense of what she’s going through.
We were at school by the time I finished my story and she said a quick good bye. I’ll likely never know if, when my daughter walks into school that very first day, it will make a difference for her to know that once upon a time I went through it too, and I survived. I hope so.
I’d love to hear the stories you inherited, and the ones you tell your children!Follow @CMMatthiessen