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March 22, 2013

The single most important thing you can do for your family


by Connie Matthiessen, Associate Editor

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!  


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Yes, we tell both good and bad stories, modifying details when age-appropriate. On my father's side, my great-grandfather's alcoholism resulted in the desertion of his family of seven children with the words "I never wanted these d****d kids," when his oldest child, my grandfather, was 14. My grandfather left school to help support his large family and then married a few years later. His wife finished 8th grade before eloping. They had four boys and worked hard to establish and keep close family ties ranging from my grandfather's siblings to his grandchildren. Drinking was not allowed in my grandfather's house and I have never seen alcohol in the homes of any of my aunts, uncles or cousins. Family get-togethers were frequent, loud, and fun. Everyone of us remains fiercely devoted to our own and our extended families. On the other hand, my grandparents did not develop good money management habits.

Across a busy street and six houses down from those grandparents' home lay a very different family house. Built in stages when enough cash had been saved for the next phase, my mother's family home was quiet and reserved, full of long-range planners and savers. They were also quite close and I knew my great aunts and uncles plus all my mom's cousins very well because we celebrated all the major holidays together. Even as an adult, my great, great, great grandfather hid in a closet every 10 years when census takers came around because he had been born on the boat coming over from Germany and was afraid the US would make him go back if they discovered he wasn't a real American. His own large family was decimated in the 1900 hurricane that destroyed Galveston Island and the survivors grew even more devoted to keeping their remaining family together.

Bad things still happen - addiction, divorce, death of children and young adults, cancer, prison - but knowing previous generations also experienced difficult years, including living in poverty and partially finished homes, helps us get through our own trials. How can we not continue telling our children our family stories?

is in't bulling when they change your class room ,to help you make a new start with new kids and when you get to the class you find out that the teacher told the kids about you, and made posters saying: stop bothering me...you name ...for the kids .
this is what happen to my son yesterday in his school portage park elementary,not My son has ADHD, i called the school no body made a move to find out what is going on .ps help

I've found that the best thing to do with your children it to let them do what they want. And by that, I mean they should be exposed to the activities they want to do - as long as you have the income to provide. You have no idea of how talented they could be in a particular area and you do not want to hold them back from learning that. That was one of the upsets of my childhood, so I ensure my children get their chances

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