The Importance Of The Family Narrative


Holidays are special for many reasons like good food, time off from school and work, and family gatherings. These get-togethers can be very important to the development of children’s emotional health and happiness.

A growing body of research has revealed that children who understand and identify with their “family narrative” are more resilient and have a better orientation to success.  Family narrative refers to the family’s history and core values. Communicating family information across generations is particularly important, according to Marshall Duke, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Emory. He asserts that family stories create meaning beyond the individual child and add to his or her sense of self or identity. Children who know about their family’s history—milestones, tragedies and triumphs—have higher self-esteem, lower levels of behavior disturbance, and a greater “internal locus of control,” meaning that they believe in their own capacity to succeed and have a strong sense of control in their own lives.

Children who learn about grandmother’s and grandfather’s stories feel that they are part of something beyond themselves. Stories of triumph over adversity strengthen an individual child’s sense of self because the child is related to the ancestor’s experience. (These triumphs don’t have to be epic; they can be everyday experiences like hard work and tenacity.) Identification with elders also provides a stable sense of values and standards for behavior and accomplishment.

sharing, and building, the narrative

The process of transmission also matters. Families must come together and take time to communicate and listen to each other to relate this information. Holidays, regular family gatherings, and daily discussions at bedtime or around the table are also related to a sense of connection and belonging.

As children develop and encounter challenges and victories, their experience is woven into the texture of the intergenerational story and contributes to his or her identity formation. It is the reciprocal transaction—the give and take—between the child and family members that counts. The child is heard and his experience is incorporated into the family story. This process is also a means of guiding the child in the process of moral development. For example, families may have defining beliefs or values that the child learns to identify with, such as giving to charity, religious beliefs, or orientation to human rights. Some families adopt regular family meetings to define values, rules and codes of behavior; but most transmit these messages more informally with parents and elders modeling and discussing beliefs and behaviors they want to the children to emulate.

Holidays, vacations and daily commutes in the car are all opportunities to tell the narrative of a family. But families must unplug from technology and talk to each other. And the intergenerational aspect of the family story is especially important for children to develop a connection to their past.

Pat Blackwell, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist in practice at Pelts Kirkhart & Associates., 504.581.9333.



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