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How understanding your family history helps your kids to thrive

A writhing, wailing bundle enters your lives, and everything changes. No sleep, but a love that bowls you over. No couple time (for a while), but an instant family! A never-ending supply of dirty nappies, but also, the tiniest, softest fingers gripping yours. Having a baby robs you of much you took for granted, but pays you back tenfold in life-expanding and unexpected ways.

And it's not just you who is mad about the babe! If this is the first baby of its generation in your family, your little one has opened up a whole new world of experience for your parents, your siblings and possibly your grandparents. Everyone's role is redefined. Your mum is now a granny! Your father-in-law's a granddad! And if you're like many new parents, it's pretty exciting to see your child's place in your family. Your family was one way, and now it's different. All thanks to your little bub.

As he grows, you help your little one to connect with your family. When he's tiny, it's just about contact. Rocking him to sleep, singing to him, feeding him. These are all things grandparents and other family members can do, and often this is when you need grandma's help with baby. When your son or daughter is older, it becomes more about doing fun things with grandma and grandpa, like going to a museum, reading a story, or just playing together.

Why family history matters

As your child gets to the age at which she starts asking thoughtful questions about granny's and grandpa's lives, things get more interesting. "Granny," your child might say, "do you have any brothers or sisters?" "Granny, why do you speak Chinese?", she might ask. Suddenly, your family has its very own investigative journalist! Many parents find these kinds of questions sweet and funny, which they often are.

But did you know research has found that kids who know a lot about their family history also feel more in control of their lives, a greater sense of self-esteem, less anxiety, and more of a sense that their family functions well? They even behave better than children who know less about their family history.


Picture all parents sitting their child down and letting loose a stream of stories about their family's past...! Nope, it doesn't work that way, says psychology professor Marshall P Duke at Emory University, one of the authors of this research. Just because kids who know a lot about their family history are also less anxious and more well-behaved, does not necessarily mean that simply telling your child family stories will make them less anxious and more beautifully behaved.  Rather than causation, the study only measured association, that is: kids who know about their family history also happen to feel less anxious and behave better. So how does that help parents?

What the sharing of family stories can teach kids

In a recent article in the Huffington Post, Professor Duke explains how telling family stories may help your children: "...we found that family stories seem to be transferred by mothers and grandmothers more often than not and that the information was typically passed during family dinners, family vacations, family holidays, and the like. [...] These very same regular family dinners, yearly vacations, and holiday celebrations occur more frequently in families that have high levels of cohesiveness and [...] contribute to the development of a strong sense of what we have called the intergenerational self. It is this intergenerational self and the personal strength and moral guidance that seem to derive from it that are associated with increased resilience, better adjustment, and improved chances of good clinical and educational outcomes."

In other words, it is not the content, but the process of sharing family stories that matters most.

In families where children know their family history, the family has been spending time together and talking. In the process of these stories being told, children have learnt some very important things that give them confidence. For example, they might have learnt that:

  • I have a place within my family - I am not alone.
  • My grandparents and parents had to deal with challenges and they are ok - I will be, too.
  • My parents and grandparents take the time to talk to me and share their history, thoughts and feelings with me - I matter.
  • My family members talk about themselves as a family - we may have differences but we are committed to each other.

How to share your family stories

Here are some pointers for sharing your family history:

1. Take your children seriously. In order to tell your children about your family history in any sort of meaningful way, you will need to take their thoughts and questions seriously. The idea is not to hold a lecture or to throw out some quick facts, but to sit down and have an enjoyable family chat, which involves your child expressing thoughts, asking questions, and having these responded to. The lesson your child will learn is: My thoughts and questions matter - one of the cornerstones of resilient, confident behaviour.

2. Tell your family story in a way that promotes the idea of resilience. Professor Duke's research has found that there are three types of stories parents and grandparents tend to tell when talking about family history. One is, we had everything and lost it. The second is, we had nothing and worked hard to get where we are. And the third is, we've had ups and downs but we persevere. Duke has found that the third narrative is associated with more resilient behaviour in children. So when you tell your story, avoid a simplistic black-and-white version of your family history, and tell your children (or grandchildren) about the genuine ups and downs their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents experienced. The lesson your child will learn is: I'll experience ups and downs in life but if I persevere I'll be ok.

3. Collect and display old photographs to spark discussion.  Especially if talking about your family history does not come naturally to your family, display some photographs of your parents as children, or of your own grandparents, around the house - ideally close to where you are likely to sit down and have a chat with your kids, like the living room or kitchen. You could even make it a family project and put an heirbook together as a family. This would give you and your parents the chance to include things like old letters and postcards, or even to write down and include some memories. When your children have their own children, this will be an ideal conversation starter for them and their own children about the family's history.


4. Talk about your family's core values.  A chat about your family members' experiences is the ideal time to bring up moral issues that are important to you. For example, you might focus on a part of the story in which a grandparent did something courageous, or in which someone betrayed someone else. Children learn a lot about values from storybooks and daily life, but when hearing about the lives of adults, they get a glimpse into more complex questions of morality - a great opportunity. Do make sure to adjust what you say according to what you feel your child can handle at her age.

5. Carve out time to talk.  The simplest thing might be the hardest of all. As Professor Duke argues, the most important thing is not what the family stories were about, but the fact that parents and grandparents took time to sit with their children and grandchildren and talk to them. In our busy, work-dominated lives we often think we need to fill up any precious free time with a fun activity. Having something planned is great, but in order to have time to talk, sometimes you need to plan nothing at all. Giving conversations the chance to develop requires some regular sitting down for meals, some time to just lounge around in the living room and read, play and talk, some simple enjoyment of being together and not doing much. Family get-togethers like birthdays and anniversaries are also chances to talk as a family. So remember, sitting around and talking is not a waste of time... It's a chance for your family to develop a sense of cohesion and for your children to learn more about their place in the world.

Do you and your parents ever talk to your children about your family's past? If so, when do you tend to do this? How do your children respond? Please feel free to share your experiences in the comments!

This article was written by our education writer Diana van Walsum. Diana is an education and educational technology writer and a former Early Years teacher. Holding a Master's degree in ICT in Education from the University of Hong Kong, a Psychology degree, and an Early Childhood teaching diploma, Diana believes that children learn best through active, hands-on inquiry, play and conversation. Besides her busy education writing schedule she also enjoys supply teaching.


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