To the outside observer, I had a fairly dysfunctional childhood. My parents went through a bitter divorce when I was very young and that created a lot of disruption. And yet, when I think back, my memories of growing up are almost all happy ones.
How can that be? I think it has a lot to do with the stories we shared. While my siblings and I experienced our share of tense family holidays and instability, we also had a wealth of shared experiences: the disastrous road trip through a snow storm when the heat gave out in the car, the Thanksgiving dinner when an elderly guest pretended to die at the table, or the time my older brother, then four, threw up on my mom’s back while she was cleaning up vomit off of the floor.
A recent New York Times story reports that one of the biggest predictors of a family’s happiness isn’t linked to money, number of kids, or parenting style. Instead, research finds, the presence of family mythology - shared stories we can draw on again and again – are linked to a higher self-esteem and a higher perception of family functionality in children.
The family narrative, suggests the research, gives kids a sense of belonging and a feeling of being part of something larger than themselves. And so, a child who has these stories to draw on, again and again, sees himself as part of a strong family unit. Even if times were tough when he was a kid, a child with family mythology will perceive himself as happier and go on to be more resilient and self-reliant.
It goes on to say that there are three different kinds of family narratives:
Ascending: The ascending narrative tells the story of a family on its way up: “We used to be poor, but we worked our way up, and look where we are now.”
Descending: “Things used to be wonderful, until the recession hit. After Mom lost her job, we lost the house, and now we’re struggling.”
But the most healthy narrative, according to Marshall Duke, a clinical psychologist quoted in the story, is the oscillating family narrative: the story of perseverance in the face of ups and downs.
I suppose, even though my siblings and I went through so many hard times as kids, the oscillating narrative is the reason I feel like we have such a strong family: We struggled. Sometimes we had it rough (and sometimes we still do.) In between the hardship, there was a lot of laughter, and a lot of joy. We all grew up to be functional, loving adults. We persevered.
I guess it’s not surprising that kids who see themselves as part of a family who can ride out life’s bumps are happier and more resilient overall. And it’s the family story I definitely want my kids to believe.
Here are some of the ways I am trying to do this with my own kids:
1) Tell it like it was. Instead of glossing over hard times, I talk frankly with my children about how much we struggled when our family was very young. I want them to understand that life has ups and downs, and that the relative ease and stability they live with right now isn’t the way their lives have always been…or always will be. I also want them to understand that, when the going gets tough, better times are usually waiting around the corner if they can stick it out and keep on swimming.
2) Help them understand the big picture. My son Jacob, who is 15, is obsessed with our family background and genealogy. I admit that sometimes I get tired of answering the same questions about our heritage over and over. But I try to remind myself that what he’s really searching for is a sense of connection to his past, including those great-grandparents and even more ancient ancestors he’ll never know. I know it’s important, especially for my younger kids who do not have strong memories of three of their four grandparents.
3) Tell stories. Not every family has that hilarious (you know, now that time has passed) story of the time the car broke down on the side of the highway in the pitch-black, and Dad had to flag down help while the oldest sibling terrified the little ones with scary stories in the back of the minivan. Some families seem prone to those kinds of mishaps – and I believe telling and re-telling those stories has a lot of value! – while other families seem to glide along in a much smoother way.
But even normal life can become a family-strengthening narrative. Tell your kids – and their siblings – about the cute way they used to mispronounce words; about the ride to the hospital the night they were born, about the family vacation they can’t remember because they were in your belly at the time. (Is it any wonder I almost “remember” going to Disney World when my mom was pregnant with me? It was part of the family mythology, and I was included – even though I was only sort of there.)
4) Create rituals. They don’t have to be elaborate: Sunday night dinners. Saturday trips to the farmer’s market. Dyeing three dozen eggs the day before Easter and making egg salad a week later. Small, predictable rituals are the fabric of our lives, and of our children’s memories. It might seem counter-intuitive, but have a much clearer memory of things – even minor things – we did “all the time” when I was a kid, as opposed to bigger, flashier events that only happened once.
5) Create a positive mythology. But in an honest and real way. When talking about your nuclear or extended family, highlight stories that showcase perseverance and families pulling together in the face of hardship. Not only will this help your children remember those instances of resilience and family strength later, but they can also serve as a constant reminder to you to encourage the kids to help each other out and circle the wagons when things get tough. If you’re noticing that your family history doesn’t include a lot of examples of people sticking together when it counts, maybe you can start to create new ones.