family stories told around the fire

The Secret Sauce to Keeping your Family Together?

The Secret Sauce to Keeping your Family Together?

by Bill High

Is there a secret sauce of family togetherness? Maybe so, but it’s probably not what you’d expect.

It’s not time on the soccer fields. Not shuttling back and forth between activities. Not the best SAT scores, going to the top universities, or even time at the lake house.

It’s something quite different. It’s the family stories we tell and share.

A few years back, The New York Times ran an article titled “The Stories That Bind Us,” adapted from Bruce Feiler’s book The Secrets of Happy Families.


The Research

Feiler recounts the work of Marshall Duke, a psychologist at Emory University. In the mid-1990s, Duke was asked to explore myth and ritual in American families. Amid lots of research into the dissipation of the family, he was interested in exploring what families could do to push back against those forces.

Duke’s wife Sara, a psychologist who worked with children with learning disabilities, had noticed that the students who knew a lot about their families tended to be more resilient in the face of challenges.

Duke, along with his colleague, Robyn Fivush, developed the “Do You Know?” scale to test this hypothesis. During the summer of 2001, they asked children 20 questions about their families. They included things like, Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know where your parents met?

To complete their research, Duke and Fivush compared the results to a batter of psychological tests the children had taken. They came to a simple yet profound conclusion: “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.”

Two months after the study, the September 11 tragedy happened. The two psychologists went back to the families they had studied to reassess the children after their common experience of a national trauma. Once again, those who knew more about their families proved to be more resilient.


Why Family Stories Matter

As Duke learned, those children who learn they are part of a larger ongoing narrative have a greater sense of confidence and of belonging. They have a strong “intergenerational self”, knowing they are part of something bigger than themselves.

The best narratives frame the moments of success and setback in the context of a family’s history. We tell how our family has come through the ups and downs, how we’ve survived and thrived, how we are who we are today as a result.

The stories that we pass on to our kids will help to keep us together. What are you communicating with the stories you are sharing with your children?



Photo by Mike Erskine on Unsplash

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Published February 21, 2020

Topics: Family Legacy

FamilyFamily StoriesGenerationsMulti-Generational

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