Teaching Family History

Make your family stronger by sharing what you know about each other.
By Julie Baumgardner
September 12, 2017

Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Where your parents went to school? How your parents met and fell in love? Do you remember sitting around the dinner table or hearing extended family sharing stories about the past, perhaps over the holidays? Stories like, “When I was your age, we walked five miles uphill in the snow to get to school.” Although this information might have seemed frivolous and useless at the time, you might want to rethink the role those stories at extended family gatherings play in teaching family history.

What Makes Families Strong?

New York Times journalist and author Bruce Feiler spent years studying what makes families strong. He found that developing a strong family narrative where children have a good grasp of their family history helps them establish a strong sense of self. This, in turn, helps them do better in life.

Feiler looked at the work of Drs. Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush at Emory University. Duke and Fivush developed a measure called the Do You Know? (DYK) scale. Using this scale, they asked children 20 questions about family history, like: Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know about something really terrible that happened to your family?

In 2001, they asked 50 families to tape their dinner conversations. Then they compared the results to psychological tests given to the children. The results? The more children knew about their family history, the higher their self-esteem and sense of control over their lives.

Interestingly, Duke and Fivush had an unusual opportunity in that the events of 9-11 occurred months after their data collection. They reassessed those children and again found that those who knew more about their families were more resilient, meaning they dealt better with the traumatic stress.

Also, the higher scores on the DYK scale were associated with:

  • An internal locus of control (a belief in one’s own capacity to control what happens to him or her),
  • Better family functioning,
  • Lower levels of anxiety,
  • Fewer behavioral problems, and
  • Better chances for good outcomes if a child faces educational or emotional/behavioral difficulties.

What can parents do to help teach family history?

Duke warns that it’s not just about children knowing the answers to questions on the scale. He recommends pursuing activities with your children that convey this sense of history. Some great times for this are during holidays, birthday celebrations, family trips in the car, vacations and big family gatherings.

Even simple events like riding to the mall, looking through photo albums or teaching about a cheesy family tradition can have a positive impact. The stories are the foundation on which children can grow stronger and healthier. You should tell them over and over again through the years.

So, the next time your children roll their eyes during a story from the past, just remember that you are building what Duke and Fivush call “the child’s intergenerational self.” But that’s not all. You’re also increasing their personal strength and giving them moral guidance.

Do your children know your family stories?

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