Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Here Comes the Science! The Benefits of Family History Narratives

Recently, I came across the term "intergenerational self" in a magazine I was reading. It referred to a study that found that family history benefited children's perceptions of self. This was right up my alley! Unfortunately the magazine article did not cite or even casually mention the authors of the piece or even the title.

After a little searching, I think I found the study online.

Check this out:

"Children who know their family history, who have shared in these stories, develop a send of self embedded in a larger familiar and intergenerational context, and this sense of self provokes strength and security."

Boom goes the science, folks. Family history is good for you. Especially for the children.

The quote above is from a study titled, The Intergenerational Self: Subjective Perspective and Family History, by Robyn Fivush, Jennifer G. Bohanek and Marshall Duke. (For the TL;DR crowd, the quote is from the last paragraph in the "Narratives, Language, and Self-Continuity" section.)

The authors discuss family history in the concept conversations at a dinner table, usually parents' stories of their childhoods. However, though the subjects were parents and children, I believe grandparents and other close family members could also make the same impact and provide similar results.

In my own childhood, I loved hearing my grandmother tell stories of when she was a girl. Some of the stories were sad. She never knew her mother and lived in extreme poverty. Some of the stories were funny. Her older brother made her jump off the roof with an umbrella to see if she would get hurt before he tried it himself. My grandmother's childhood was very different from mine, and it made an impact on me then, similar to the findings in this study.

Though this piece focuses on children, I firmly believe family history can also affect adult self perceptions. Learning the stories and experiences of my own ancestors has heavily influenced the way I view myself and the world. The results in my case are almost all beneficial. My ancestors' hardships put my own woes in perspective. My ancestors' quirks and faults make sense of my own oddball characteristics. I know my place in life and it feels good to have that security and knowledge.

Learning your own family history gives you the opportunity to know your purpose and place. That's the message I preach. Though the sermon may sound crazy, the above study gives it legs.


  1. I agree. I think the family stories give kids pride in family, and something to live up to, that is, if the stories are good. But then there are stories like my great aunt told, that stretched the truth a bit. lol

    That's funny about your grandmother's brother sending her off first with the umbrella. We tried that too, but we were being Mary Poppins.

    1. I agree about the type of story. Pulling out the census records is not fun for a kid (usually). But the stories my grandmother told are still with me.

      It's funny about tall tales, I always thought the stories of my great-grandfather were exaggerated, but the more I learn about him, the claims are proving to be true!

  2. Agreed on healthy perspectives for adult children who hear the stories of their elders. I've no research to back it up. Just anecdotes (and, the plural of anecdotes is not data!)

    Eric Erickson's life-stages theory posits that for seniors, in the last stage of life, the primary issue is generativity vs despair. The telling of life stories and the hearing by younger generations (adult children, grandchildren) allows the elders to sift through one's own life and do evaluate whether life is meaningful. For an adult child to sit with an elder and hear "what was life like for you?" provides a different kind of benefit than, say, therapy. I posit (with no data!) that the benefit is mutual, for storyteller and storycatcher.

    I thought to post a link to where I wrote about this on my site, but then I remembered I discussed this in a talk I gave at one of the Oral History Association annual meetings. Hm. All rightie then! Must get writing.

    1. Susan.
      You have to right this up! The idea that telling the family stories is healthy for the older generations is something everyone needs to hear. It is healthy for all of us.

  3. Heaven help the poor grandchildren - they're in for more stories from me now.

  4. Good point. Thanks for tracking down that resource, Amy!

    On the other side of the equation, I remember my daughter practically pulling those stories right out of me. She was always asking, "What was it like when you were a kid?" I think some kids have a natural curiosity about this built right into them.

  5. Totally agree, and just talked about this in a recent interview I did on Conscious Living Radio. Those who have a sense of where they fit in the family history have a mirroring of self that transcends the immediacy (and superficiality) of the mirroring of self that is restricted to one's current family and friends and co-workers. NO comparison!

  6. I'm totally with you on this one, Amy. In my own life, writing a family history and doing (still doing!) family research has Definitely affected my "adult self perceptions." It has grounded me in a way no other study could have.

    We all have a place in history and family (even if it's outlier or outcast...still an orientation), and we all need to familiarize ourselves with that place. Maybe that knowledge affects our "inner child" as well as our "adult self" -- but then, the two are the same person, anyway.

    I've copied the URL of the article, and thank you so much for this post and this superb insight.

  7. I completely agree. I grew up hearing my parents and grandparents' stories. Years later my adult perspective on those stories gives me a much better understanding of who they were and my own self perceptions.

    (Oh, I'm hiding the umbrellas in case my children get any ideas!)

  8. I wholeheartedly agree. As a child I heard - over and over - my grandmother's stories about the history of her family - some 200 years worth - her memory at the time was superb. I will *always* regret that we didn't tape her while we could. Daily life intervenes however - and here I am several decades later still not having taken the time to tape my Dad.

  9. Oh heavens! I wish I had any grandchildren on the way! I remember so well my grandfather's tales about cows and cowcatchers (he was a railroad engineer). My mom didn't tell us stories (though she had so many to tell).

  10. Amy, awesome post! I want to let you know that this blog post is listed in today's Fab Finds post at http://janasgenealogyandfamilyhistory.blogspot.com/2013/03/follow-fridayfab-finds-for-march-1-2013.html

  11. Love this post and so relate. We just go the oldest family member on Facebook and she is writing her memories as her status... All the younger member down to great grands are join in. Great moments.