Monday, April 08, 2013

Birthday Wishes for a Proper Family Narrative

As is often the case every couple years on my birthday I take a self diagnostic and write a "Birthday Wishes for" post. Whether it was Happy Parenting in 2008, Political Perspective in 2010, or Empathy in 2011, the exercise has become a neat anti-New Year's Resolution (check my post history to see how those have worked out). This year, nothing seems more relevant than a simple wish for a happy family. From the NYT:
“There was a lot of research at the time into the dissipation of the family,” he told me at his home in suburban Atlanta. “But we were more interested in what families could do to counteract those forces.”

Around that time, Dr. Duke’s wife, Sara, a psychologist who works with children with learning disabilities, noticed something about her students.

“The ones who know a lot about their families tend to do better when they face challenges,” she said.
The uniqueness of the answer is concealed in just how simple "knowing" was measured:
Her husband was intrigued, and along with a colleague, Robyn Fivush, set out to test her hypothesis. They 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 in the summer of 2001, and taped several of their dinner table conversations. They then compared the children’s results to a battery of psychological tests the children had taken, and reached an 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.
Loyal blog readers may be thinking, but what about that whole Life's Not a Story, It's a Mess quarter-life epiphany. I am certainly still weary of creating overarching life patterns where none exist, but that doesn't mean we can't create some general narrative:
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. ...” [sound famialiar? -HB]

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.’ ”
It's not about creating a false story that leaves out the gritty details. It's about creating an inter-generational understanding of the world. This seems to be the strength of long lasting institutions (think the military or the Catholic Church). In fact, one of the big realities of Biblical wisdom is having a God's eye view of history. This just seems like a healthy step in the right direction.

It also works for institutions like businesses. Which is why at our most recent State of the Theater meeting, in which we added several new members to Alchemy, I took a few minutes to put where we are going in context of where we have been.

This has also given me the idea of creating a new end of the year project for my US History courses. Every year we create a large timeline going around the room labeled by pictures of the presidents a graphic organizers of every topic. After exams this year I plan on assigning students to investigate their own family heritage and narrative and label our giant timeline with the names and stories. I look forward to completing it myself.