“That happened in the olden days,” my children would tell me. Their dismissive tone indicated they didn’t see any relevance to what I was relaying about the past and what they were experiencing in the present. I, on the other hand, have always been curious about “the olden days,” especially as far as family stories are concerned. My siblings and I would beg our Auntie to tell us stories of our mother when she was growing up. We questioned anything that seemed odd, like the fact our mother lived from ages 3 to 14, around the corner from her own parents and siblings, in her Irish grandmother’s house.
One summer, getting the basement sorted out so I could teach dancing there, we discovered a box belonging to our father, filled with memorabilia from his college days. This provided a gold mine of information about parts of his past he never spoke about. From his photo albums we learned he had performed in a theater troupe, and since my brother and I were involved in theater and dance, we were shocked that our engineer father had never seen fit to mention this to us.
Recently I learned of a study that demonstrated strong benefits to children when they know about their family history. A team of researchers at Emery developed a “Do You Know? Scale, which was a series of 20 questions for children to answer about their families. Questions such as; 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? Do you know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of your birth?
The results showed that 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. Even if the family narrative is not all goodness and light, the fact that family members overcame challenges in the past says to the next generation, you can do so too.
Knowing that my mother was sent to take care of her grandmother when she was a small child helps explain my mother’s and my own sense of the importance of care-giving roles in families and communities. Knowing that my father was a thespian helped me to see that people are not just their job or professional roles. We all have many dimensions and hidden talents to discover and explore.
I loved getting confirmation for the important role elders and their stories play in a family and for the next generations. Since one of the most important things for children to know is a family narrative that shows they are part of a larger big body, one that has survived to this point, and likely to do so moving forward and beyond.