Why children need to know their family history
I’ve been inspired by research that suggests knowing the intimate facts of our family histories makes us more healthy emotionally
One day, my youngest daughter announced she was a Chelsea fan. It was a difficult day for her father, a life-long Man United supporter. “You can’t do that,” he whispered, his face ashen. “She was born in London,” I said, cheerily. “She can support what football team she likes.”
As someone with a modicum of intelligence – who can tell the difference between a football match, and, say, a mass global catastrophe (I make the distinction as there seems to be some confusion in our house) – I wasn’t concerned, but it did get me thinking about my children’s roots.
Like many people, we are raising our kids away from “home turf”. Their father and I hail from the north. Most of our family are dotted around Manchester, but as we have been living in London for more than 20 years, our kids are southerners, which, from a northern perspective, is a little like admitting you eat babies for breakfast.
Does it matter? Would our children benefit from being more in touch with their roots? In truth, the notion of family has never had much truck with me. Whenever I hear people say, “It’s family,” I get a flash image of Phil Mitchell, usually wielding a baseball bat.
I was pondering this when I came across research showing that children who have a strong “family narrative” enjoy better emotional health. Much of this work is from the late 90s, when psychologists Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, asked 48 families 20 questions about their family history. They found that the more the children knew, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.
“Hearing these stories gave the children a sense of their history and a strong ‘intergenerational self’. Even if they were only nine, their identity stretched back 100 years, giving them connection, strength and resilience,” he said.
I’m all for those qualities, so I decide to give the questions a whirl. To my surprise, they sail through the first (“do you know where your parents grew up?”) but are less clear about their grandparents. They all immediately jump on my mother’s bucket-and-spade childhood in Devon, which I strongly suspect is because ice-cream is involved, and then we’re on to: “Do you know how your parents met?”
This turns out to be another easy win. “University,” they all trump, although one of them – I’m not saying who – has a highly romanticised version. “You glimpsed Dad across a crowded bar and it was love at first sight. Then someone introduced you and you fell madly in love.”
“Does it matter if some of the answers are slightly, well, exaggerated?” I ask Duke, later. “No,” he says. “The exact questions and answers don’t matter. They’re more to show a process has taken place, that of sharing the stories, and that the children feel they have a story to tell.”
So I press on. “Do you know the source of your name?” But they are stumped by their grandparents’ first meeting. My in-laws, I say, met at a dance in Bolton, though my mother-in-law says she wishes she had gone for “the man with the car” instead. Meanwhile, my parents met on a CND rally. My mum was asking her friend what she had for breakfast and my dad interrupted: “Don’t talk to me about breakfast!” and my mum thought: “No. Nobody was.”
Then comes: “Do you know what went on when you (and your siblings) were born?” The twins quibble about who came first and then my eldest, who was a toddler at the time, chips in: “I wanted to name the twins Koko and Brewster after the trains in Chuggington, but I called them ‘the pink baby’ and ‘the blue baby’ instead.”
I am just beginning to congratulate myself on a job well done (those long hours boring them must have finally paid off), when things turn embarrassing. “Do you know some of the jobs your parents had when they were young?” My son quickly recalls Daddy’s newspaper round on his bike, which I think he imagines like the last scene in ET, but my eldest pipes up: “You were a waitress and not very good at it. You kept spilling the tea.” (True.) “You served garlic butter instead of mayonnaise.” (True.) “And you sneakily ate the cream teas in the kitchen.” (No comment.) “And when you worked in a pub, you had a blazing row with the sous chef because they had none of the dishes on the menu, which everyone in the bar could overhear.”
I’m reeling from the fact that I have told her this (seriously? I told her the teen stuff? Hadn’t I resolved never to do this?) but then I think, do they really need to know this kind of thing?
According to Duke, they do. Even though my teen stories are ridiculous, they feed into the idea that it’s important to let children hear about relatives overcoming difficulty.
“Families often shield children from the truth but negative stories can be even more important than positive ones for fostering emotional resilience,” he says.
He is right. Apparently, there are three types of family stories: the ascending one (“We built ourselves up out of nothing”); the descending one (“We lost it all”), or – the most successful – the oscillatory one (“We have had our share of ups and downs”). I grew up hearing stories like the latter: how my grandparents’ house was bombed in the war; how my grandma saw her husband die of a heart attack in the pulpit, while she sat in the congregation with her 15-year-old son; how my great-grandfather-in-law was killed in the first world war, leaving his wife and two young children behind.
I am pleased to learn that the children remember these stories; that my son knows his great-grandad was a coal miner and sent down the pit at 14, that my daughters know their great-great-auntie went into service when she was a teen; and I realise we’re in a whole new unlikely scenario where Downton Abbey is suddenly social realism.
“We all feel stronger if we are part of a tapestry,” says Stefan Walters, a family therapist. “One thread alone is weak, but, woven into something larger, surrounded by other threads, it is more difficult to unravel.”
Duke makes the point that discussing family dramas can fuel parent and adolescent interaction when the age of the bedtime story has passed. “And these stories do good even when the person is dead, we continue to learn from them.” That’s a sobering thought; that the stories stay with our kids, long after we are gone. Even if they do grow up to be Chelsea fans.