I hit the breaking point as a parent a few years ago. It was the week of my extended family’s annual gathering in August. My parents were aging; my wife and I were straining under the chaos of young children; my sister was bracing to prepare her preteens for bullying, sex and cyberstalking.
Sure enough, one night all the tensions boiled over. At dinner, I noticed my nephew texting under the table. I knew I shouldn’t say anything, but I asked him to stop.
- My sister snapped at me to not discipline her child.
- My dad pointed out that my girls were the ones balancing spoons on their noses.
- My mom said none of the grandchildren had manners.
Within minutes, everyone had fled to separate corners.
That night I began to wonder: What is the secret sauce that holds a family together? What are the ingredients that make some families effective, resilient, happy?
I spent the last few years trying to answer that question, meeting families, scholars and experts ranging from peace negotiators to online game designers to Warren Buffett’s bankers. After a while, a surprising theme emerged.
The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.
The “Do you Know?” Scale
I first heard this idea from Marshall Duke, a colorful psychologist at Emory University. In the mid-1990s, Dr. Duke and colleague Robyn Fivush developed a measure called the “Do You Know?” scale that asked children to answer 20 questions. Examples included: Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know where your parents met? Do you know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of your birth?
Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivush asked those questions of four dozen families, then compared the children’s results to a battery of psychological tests. Their overwhelming conclusion: The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. The “Do You Know?” scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.
“We were blown away,” Dr. Duke said.
Why does knowing where your grandmother went to school help a child overcome something as minor as a skinned knee or as major as a terrorist attack?
“The answers have to do with a child’s sense of being part of a larger family,” Dr. Duke said.
Three Kinds of Family Narratives
Psychologists have found that every family has a unifying narrative, he explained, and those narratives take one of three shapes.
First, the ascending family narrative: “Son, when we came to this country, we had nothing. Our family worked. We opened a store. Your grandfather went to high school. Your father went to college. And now you. …”
Second is the descending narrative: “Sweetheart, we used to have it all. Then we lost everything.”
“The most healthful narrative,” Dr. Duke continued, “is the third one. It’s called the oscillating family narrative: ‘Dear, let me tell you, we’ve had ups and downs in our family. We built a family business. Your grandfather was a pillar of the community. Your mother was on the board of the hospital. But we also had setbacks. You had an uncle who was once arrested. We had a house burn down. Your father lost a job. But no matter what happened, we always stuck together as a family.’ ”
They Know They Belong
Dr. Duke said that children who have the most self-confidence have what he and Dr. Fivush call a strong “intergenerational self.” They know they belong to something bigger than themselves.
Religious traditions do a particularly good job at conveying this message. Many Bible stories include overcoming suffering and bouncing back from difficult times. One reason religious communities are so tight is that they understand one of their roles is to help people who are experiencing pain and hardship.
Dr. Duke recommends that parents convey similar messages to their children. You can convey this feeling in any number of occasions: holidays, vacations, big family get-togethers, even a ride to the mall. The hokier the family’s tradition, the more likely it is to be passed down, he said. “These traditions become part of your family.”
The bottom line: if you want a happier family, create, refine and retell the story of your family’s positive moments and your ability to bounce back from the difficult ones. That act alone may increase the odds that your family will thrive for many generations to come.
This piece is adapted from The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Tell Your Family History, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, & Much More, by Bruce Feiler. Mr. Feiler writes a column on contemporary families for the New York Times and is the author of six consecutive New York Times bestsellers. For more information, please visit www.brucefeiler.com.