Adolescence is when we begin to consciously form our sense of self. Recent research has shown that sharing stories with the family can not only help young people understand where they fit into their family history, but also give them a stronger sense of confidence and a feeling of belonging to a story bigger than themselves. Do the teenagers in your life know their family history? If you’re not sure… start talking!
“There have been great societies that did not use the wheel,” wrote novelist Ursula K. Le Guin, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.” Telling stories to each other around the fire, over dinner, or before bedtime is an experience people share around the world. The stories might be fairy tales… or they might be stories of our own families.
Family stories need not be detailed or long to influence the way we see ourselves. Hearing Grandma telling the same anecdote about walking uphill both ways to school communicates that grit is a quality valued in the family. And that grandma doesn’t always tell the whole truth.
In many cultures, sharing stories of our families plays an important role in rites of passage, whether the birth of a child to an adolescent taking the first step into adulthood. It makes sense that we put an emphasis on family stories during times when we are consciously forming our identities. Learning about our ancestors and their triumphs and struggles can provide a model and inspiration for our own goals.
Psychologists Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush of Emory University research the role of family stories in adolescent development. Duke and Fivush created three categories of family stories: ascending (how we became successful), descending (how we lost everything), and the oscillatory (we’ve been through good times and bad).
“Families often shield children from the truth,” explains Duke, “but negative stories can be even more important than positive ones for fostering emotional resilience.” The oscillatory family story emphasizes persevering through challenges, something that helps adolescents especially gain perspective on their problems. After quizzing teenagers on their depth of family knowledge, Duke and Fivush found those who had a strong sense of their family history also expressed a greater sense of control over their lives, had better self-esteem, and a stronger faith in the strength of their families as a whole.
Adolescence is a time when we start to consciously create a sense of self and a vision for our future. Sharing family stories with our teenage children and grandchildren accomplishes two important things simultaneously: spending quality time with each other and providing young people with a sense of confidence and a history of overcoming challenges.
“If they roll their eyes, so be it, they’re still listening,” explained Dr. Fivush. “It’s the really mundane, everyday stories that reassure them that life is stable. It provides a sense of continuity, of enduring relationships and values. They need to know that they come from a long line of people who are strong, who are resilient, who are brave.”
Dr. Fivush and Dr. Duke created the Do You Know scale to measure people’s grasp of their own family stories. It’s a series of twenty open-ended questions meant to spark storytelling between family members while also testing their knowledge. (Note that the veracity of the story is not a factor, simply whether the person had heard the tale. Nobody is fact-checking Grandma.)
The Do You Know questions are a fun way to engage family members in a conversation about family history. “Do you know the source of your name? Do you know which person in your family you look most like? Do you know some awards that your parents received when they were young?” Questions like these easily lead to other memories.
Your family story may not be dramatic or particularly triumphant, but don’t forget: the mere fact that your grandchildren are around to hear it is evidence that your family was strong enough to survive into the 21st century while most others did not. If you’re reading this story right now, it means your family is made up of folks who know how to survive. That’s an accomplishment!
Stories like this give young people a sense of their “intergenerational self,” according to Duke and Fivush. Knowing that we belong to a larger community (in this case, the ancestors in our family tree) helps us anchor ourselves with a sense of security, even if we live far away from our relatives. A strong sense of our family’s story can bond a family to each other across space and even across time.
Studies have shown that there are great benefits for adolescents who know about their ancestors, including better academic performance, lower anxiety and higher self-esteem. We, as family historians, should endeavor to impart that knowledge to our children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. The question is, in this day and age, how to make history and our forebears interesting, enticing new generations to learn? The answer is to make it relatable, meaningful and personal to the individual child.
To learn more about their ancestors, children should begin by interviewing relatives. In preparation of the interview, help the child to craft a list of questions to ask, befitting their age, making sure to include questions that align with the child’s interests. For instance, if the child has just learned to ride a bike, they might ask about when their relative learned to ride a bike or if they rode a bike to school. If they have a particular fondness for animals, some of their questions should center around pets, first trip to a zoo, or similar. Don’t forget to ensure they have a way to record the questions and responses. If they are old enough, they can record it in a journal or create and direct an interview with media apps; while for the younger children, perhaps a cell phone video or audio recording which would later be transcribed.
Ask your children about school or other activities they are involved in. It is surprising how often an ancestral story can be relevant to an event or geographic location they are learning about in school. If they are studying bovines in life science, tell them about your grandfather’s dairy farm and how your grandmother taught you to churn fresh butter from the milk produced. If they have a particular interest in aviation, share photos of Uncle Morris, the decorated fighter pilot. Children will be more interested to learn about the subject in a classroom setting, when they can relate to it.
Help your junior genealogist create a family tree. For older children, a standard pedigree chart is the perfect way to detail their antecedents, providing them with a great understanding of the generational relationships. For younger children, provide them with colored pencils and drawing paper, paste and glue so that they may draw a tree and place ancestral photos with names. Alternatively, provide them with a printable family tree form, like these which may be downloaded from the National Archives, that can be completed together. Remember to tell stories about each family member and the time period in which they lived.
Make family reunions kid friendly. Stage a show-and-tell time for the children and ask them to bring a family heirloom or artifact and tell a story about the family member it belonged to. Have a bake-off, featuring family recipes and stories about the beloved family member who always made the special dish, allowing the children to sample the goodies and choose the winner. You could also set up a craft table where the children could draw pictures, depicting the stories of their ancestors, or create “scrapbook” pages featuring their ancestors to be compiled into a book form for everyone to enjoy at the next gathering.
The main thing to remember is to keep telling the stories. Even if they may appear to not be listening, you may be surprised at what they are absorbing. Soon they just might come to you, wanting to know more.
For additional information on engaging children in genealogy, please visit:
FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ : accessed 24 March 2021), “Why We Need Family History Now More Than Ever.”
Jaya Saxena, The New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/ : accessed 24 March 2021), “Why You Should Dig Up Your Family’s History — and How to Do It.”
FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ : accessed 24 March 2021), “How Family Stories Shape Our Identities”
Rebecca Hardy, The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/ : accessed 24 March 2021), “Why children need to know their family history.”
Carol Clark, Emory News Center (https://news.emory.edu/ : accessed 24 March 2021), “How family stories help children weather hard times.”
Wikimedia Commons, database with images (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wikiFile:Anker Grossvater erzählt eine Geschichte 1884.jpg : 24 March 2021), digital image of original artwork, “File:Anker Grossvater erzählt eine Geschichte 1884.jpg;” photograph uploaded by user Parpan05.
Beverly Clark, Emory University (https://emory.edu/ : accessed 24 March 2021), “Children Benefit if They Know About Their Relatives, Study Finds”
Michael Alison Chandler, The Washington Post (https://www.washingtonpost.com/ : accessed 24 March 2021), “Study: Teen’s knowledge of family history a sign of social-emotional health.”
Wikimedia Commons, database with images (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The Kid Reporter (1923) - 1.jpg : 24 March 2021), digital image of original film still, “File:The Kid Reporter (1923) - 1.jpg;” photograph uploaded by user Deanlaw.
Library of Congress, PH Filing Series Photographs, digital images, Library of Congress (https://loc.gov : accessed 24 March 2021), digital image of original drawing, “[Child's drawing of the Clarence White family, signed K.S. (prob. K. Sanborn)]” digital id LC-USZ62-93907.
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