Sam often speaks to groups about telling stories and their role in passing on family values. Her expertise in the value of passing on family lore comes from more than 13 years of publishing family histories, and often writing them as well. When we approach potential clients, we’ll tell them about the benefits on passing on their history, but the evidence is usually nothing more than anecdotal.
However, science says, there’s more than warm and fuzzy feelings that make these stories so potent. An article recently published in the New York Times, “The Stories That Bind Us,” reported on interesting research out of Emory University about the role of narrative and mythmaking in families. The study by professors Robyn Fivush and Marshall Duke found that children who hear stories about “highly stressful events” in their families’ past, told “in an emotionally expressive and explanatory fashion,” have higher levels of self-understanding and self-esteem. Teens that have grown up hearing stories of their parents’ childhood, their extended family and the generations before them have higher levels of self-understanding and emotional well-being.
In their study, Fivush and Duke administered the “Do you know?” test to the children of four dozen families. The test is a set 20 questions designed to gauge a child’s knowledge of their family history. The question include, Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? and Do you know where your parents met? The researchers also taped several of their dinner table conversations. The more parents told their children about their family history, the more empowered their children were in the world; family stories about facing challenges serve as roadmaps for children to overcome obstacles in their own lives. Astoundingly, “the ‘Do You Know?’ scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness,” says the New York Times article.
The dinner table has always been an important focal point of family life. We’re often thinking about what to serve for a well-balanced dinner. Beyond a serving of veggies, we can nourish future generations with family stories — food for their hearts and minds.