Thanks to photographer Annie Spratt, Unsplash

In this Year of COVID, all of us have been thinking, wishing, hoping, that we could vaccinate our kids against that danger. It now looks as though that reality is getting closer and closer. What a relief that will be! But. . .

  • What if we had the potential to “vaccinate” our kids for many of the difficulties which may befall them in their lives?
  • What if we have the ability to “immunize” them simply but powerfully against the unknown?

Emory professor of psychology, Marshall Duke (and author of the book, The Power of Family Stories) is an expert in rituals and resilience. In the mid-1990’s Marshall undertook a new initiative to understand the role of myth and ritual in American families. He and colleague Robyn Fivush had just finished interviewing almost fifty families the summer of 2001. Their hypothesis was that the more kids knew of their family history, the better the kids would handle difficulties.

The researchers developed what they called a “Do You Know?” Survey. They taped family dinners; they tested children with a battery of psychological tests; they administered their survey.

The “Do You Know” Survey included 20 questions:

  • Do you know how your parents met?
  • Do you know where your mother grew up?
  • Do you know where your father grew up?
  • Do you know where some of your grandparents grew up?
  • Do you know where some of your grandparents met?
  • Do you know where your parents were married?
  • Do you know what went on when you were being born?
  • Do you know the source of your name?
  • Do you know some things about what happened when your brothers or sisters were being born?
  • Do you know which person in your family you look most like?
  • Do you know which person in the family you act most like?
  • Do you know some of the illnesses and injuries that your parents experienced when they were younger?
  • Do you know some of the lessons that your parents learned from good or bad experiences?
  • Do you know some things that happened to your mom or dad when they were in school?
  • Do you know the national background of your family (such as English, German, Russian, etc.)?
  • Do you know some of the jobs that your parents had when they were young?
  • Do you know some awards that your parents received when they were young?
  • Do you know the names of the schools that your mom went to?
  • Do you know the names of the schools that your dad went to?
  • Do you know about a relative whose face “froze” in a grumpy position because he or she did not smile enough?

The researchers encountered a surprising phenomenon: The more kids knew about their family’s history, the better the child’s emotional health and happiness. But an uncannily timed event occurred as the researchers culled through data: September 11, 2001. Dismayed by the disaster, the team realized that all their test subjects had inadvertently been exposed to the same trauma providing researchers with a rare opportunity. They went back and reassessed the kids from their previous study to see what impact the trauma of 9/11 had wrought.

Once again, kids who knew more of their family’s history proved more resilient, showing that they were more able to moderate this enormous stressor.

When Dr. Duke was called on to explain why this might be true, he explained that when kids have a sense of being part of a larger story, an ongoing family, they are better able to frame  today’s events. He went on to describe three possible family narrative formats:

            Ascending stories: During the Great Depression, Great Grandad had a near-devasting setback but then he worked hard, put Grandad through college…who worked hard to build the family business and today, Dad is where he is by taking advantage of their effort . . .

            Descending stories: During the Great Depression, Great Grandad lost the farm, moved to town, couldn’t get a steady job so Grandad didn’t get educated, …. Ever since, our family has never really recovered. . .

            Oscillating stories: (the most healthful one) Our family has had some hard times and some good times like when. . . we built the family business, Grandmother taught at the school, your dad was on the football team and a great academic too. But then one day, our home burned down. We lost everything but what we learned is that nothing else is as important as family, the ones who love you, who’re there when good things happen but also when hard time hit.

It turns out that there are a couple of significant elements of family stories’ protective strength. First, sharing such stories with kids seems to provide something like an intergenerational identity, as if they could “borrow” or “inherit” the character and strength of those who’ve gone before. A second important element is having access to an elder, a grandmother or a grandfather. These are the family members who share the long memory, sometimes things like, “Well, your aunt wasn’t so good at math either and look how well she’s done. You’ll be fine too!”

The reason I share this research and analysis is that DINNER is a great time for intergenerational sharing to happen. Of course, it’s great if Grandma and Grandad can join your family from time to time. But even if they can’t too often, dinner is still a great relaxed, nurturing environment to share stories, family insights which will strengthen them for challenges.

Of course, we cannot know what lies ahead for our children. But of this we can be absolutely certain:

There will be times of trauma, trial, difficulties.
Who would think that dinner time stories could inoculate them?
See what you can share for the sake of their futures!