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Tuesday, May 26, 2020
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The Surprising Impact of Your Family Story


     We all know the funny family story about how Granddaddy used to have to walk miles to school every day…barefoot…in the snow… and uphill both ways. And chances are, when we tell our family stories at gatherings, some of the kids, particularly the teens, will roll their eyes and shake their heads. 

     Our children and grandchildren may believe family history is unimportant…even silly. And we may be hesitant about telling our family stories because we don’t want to be seen as silly or un-cool or God-forbid…OLD.

     Yet recent research is indicating that knowledge of the family’s history may be one of the best indicators of resilience, confidence and self-esteem in children. And in that regard, sharing the family story may be one of the best gifts we can ever give the children in our lives.

An Interesting Discovery

     Dr. Marshall Duke, a psychologist at Emery University was studying myth and ritual in American families when his wife, a learning disabilities specialist working with children, observed that those of her students who knew a lot about their family histories tended to do better when facing challenges.

     Based on that observation, Dr. Duke and a colleague, Robyn Fivush developed a questionnaire called “Do You Know?” which asked children 20 questions about their families. Questions included “Do you know where your grandparents grew up?” “Do you know where your parents went to school?” “Do you know of anything really great or really terrible that ever happened to your family?” and seventeen other similar questions.

     When they compared the results of the questionnaire with a battery of psychological tests administered to the same children, they concluded that Mrs. Duke’s theory was valid. The more children knew about their family history, the stronger was their sense of control over their own lives, the higher their confidence and self-esteem and the more positive they were about their own families.

     Then, unexpectedly, this conclusion was reinforced when the children were re-evaluated after the terrorist attacks on 9/11.  Though none of the children were directly affected by the event, “Once again,” Duke said, “the ones who knew more about their families proved to be more resilient.”

     How can knowing where your grandmother went to church help a child overcome something as minor as a fall off a bicycle or as major as a terrorist attack?

     Dr. Duke believes it has to do with the child’s sense of being part of something larger than himself...something he calls the “intergenerational self.”

The Family Narrative

     Every family has a story, and usually it follows one of three narratives.

     The ascending family narrative is the story of the family that started with nothing and succeeded against all odds…with each generation doing better than the last.

     The descending family narrative is the story of the family that had everything and then lost it…whether due to war, economic issues, disease, bad decisions or other problems.

     The oscillating family narrative is the story of most of our families …one of good times and bad times…of ups and downs…of heroes and scoundrels…of set-backs and successes. This is the healthiest family narrative. It’s the narrative where we tell our children and grandchildren, “No matter what happened, we stuck together and loved each other…and we made it through the hard times and celebrated the good times.”

     Stories like this give our children and grandchildren a broader sense of themselves and an identity beyond what they experience in their own day-to-day lives at home, school and church. They come to learn that they are part of something bigger and long lasting. They realize that they are part of the family narrative that came before them and will continue with their lives and long after they are gone.
Family Values

     And there is even more to the story. Sharing the family narrative seems to help our children and grandchildren develop core values and a code by which to live as well as assuring them of a support system. This is not a new concept, but it may be a new idea to apply it to the family.   

     The military has long found that teaching recruits about the history of their service increases camaraderie and their ability to bond more closely with their unit.  In the military, this concept is known as “unit cohesion” and it has been found to do a good job of building character and identity. As an example, at the U.S. Naval Academy, graduating seniors take incoming freshmen (or plebes) on history-building exercises, like going to the cemetery to pay tribute to the first naval aviator or visiting the original B-1 aircraft on display on campus to demonstrate that they are part of something much bigger than themselves. These lessons not only give them a historical perspective to their service, but also provides a supportive foundation for their service as they learn it is built upon the work and sacrifice of those who came before them.

Sharing the Narrative

     Parents and grandparents can pursue similar history teaching activities with their children and grandchildren to convey a sense of family history and support. Here are a few ideas. No doubt you can add some of your own.

1.    Pass on and honor family holiday traditions and tell the story of their beginnings.  

2.     Create new traditions. 

3.     Pass down family recipes 

4.     Visit grave sites, old family farms and home sites.

5.     Visit churches where parents, grandparents and other family members attended, were baptized or married. 

6.     Visit parents’ and grandparents’ schools and talk about school memories. 

7.     Go through old photos and identify long lost relatives. Explain to your child or grandchild his or her connection to those people. 

8.     Tell family stories which have been passed down through the generations. Be sure to share the negative as well as the positive stories. 

9.     Use special occasions to share the family history such as holidays, birthdays, weddings, funerals and so forth. 

10. Pass down family heirlooms along with the stories behind them.

The I-Phone Generation

     We all know how important communication is to the family and to the development of well-adjusted children. Yet it seems kids…all of us really…are increasingly disconnected  despite amazing strides in communication technology. Who hasn’t seen the family sitting together in a restaurant but not talking to each other…instead focused on the gadgets in their hands. It’s a sad commentary on today’s family dynamic.

     It’s tough to start a conversation when all you have to say to your child or grandchild is, “What did you learn in school today?” That’s a question that is usually met with a blank stare and a sigh, isn’t it? On the other end of the spectrum, some parents and grandparents feel that the only time they really talk to their kids and grandkids is when there is a problem or a disciplinary issue to be discussed.

Family conversation doesn’t have to be just about “talking through problems,” as important as that is. Family conversation is also an opportunity to tell a story about ourselves.  So, use your family story as a conversation starter.  

     Sure, the teens in your family may roll their eyes when you start talking about your favorite (or un-favorite) teacher in high school. But relating that little bit of history may help them realize their problems aren’t the end of the world. Instead, they will learn that their problems represent a new chapter in the family’s on-going life story. Knowing that you or another family member has faced down problems in the past can give them a sense of perspective going back generations. How powerful is that? 

So, tell your family story. Visit the meaningful places together. Share the bad times as well as the good. Give your children and grandchildren the strong, deep roots they need to grow and flourish. Then chances are your children and grandchildren will share your stories and their own for generations to come.  

     Following are two brief family stories. We hope you enjoy them and use them as a jumping off point for creating some stories of your own to share with your children and grandchildren. 

By Thomas E. (Jene) Hedden, Publisher, ShelbyBoomer.com

     I live on a farm that has been in my family since 1864. The farm once was much larger than it now is (84 acres). Most of the original structures on the land are now gone with new ones having replaced them.s. The oldest building still standing is a “four bent tobacco barn” which is about 100 years old. All other structures have been built within my lifetime. 

     Because I live on such ancient Hedden lands, I have taken interest in knowing what I can about my ancestors. I have been able, with some assistance from family and friends, to trace my Hedden family history back to the mid 1700’s in New Jersey where two brothers named Hedden operated a grist mill. These brothers were the first of my kin to reside in America having arrived from Ireland. 

Over the years, I have learned a bit about my grandfather, great grandfather and great- great grandfather. All are buried within ten miles of where I live. I visit their graves from time to time and contemplate what I know about them. My great-great grandfather as well as my great grandfather both were very strong and active in their Baptist faith. They both held positions of respect and leadership in the churches they attended. Though poorly educated they valued learning and saw to it that their children had educations consistent with the expectations of their times. 

     My ancestor roots were progressive farmers, being good stewards of the land. They were Hampshire hog farmers and raised “row crops” to support the pork production. They put back into the land what they withdrew. 

My personal recollection of my family only goes back to my grandfather, who was quite old when I was a small child. Most of my knowledge about the past two generations came to me from spoken tradition from my father, uncle and paternal grandmother. Those sources are all silent now, having returned to the soil from which they came. I wish I would have asked more questions when the opportunity was there. 

     My children will soon be the repository of what I know. They seem to have some interest in what I have to say. I am careful to write down and share with them from time to time. I label old photographs if I recall the circumstances of the moments they captured. 

 I find that my ancestor values have become my values. Their interests, my interests. Small wonder I feel such strong bonds with the rich lands of Shelby County.


The Two Letters


By Paula Moore Hurtt, Web Content Manager, ShelbyBoomer.com


     The story goes that one morning in the summer of my father’s 18th year, he walked the long gravel drive to the mailbox in front of the home-place on Bald Knob Road and pulled out two envelopes. 

     The first envelope was from Morehead State University offering a “full ride” scholarship. My father, who was tall for his generation, had been a good basketball player in high school. He had thoughts of teaching and coaching basketball. For a child of the depression, the college scholarship represented the doorway to all his hopes and plans. 

     Then he pulled the second envelope out of the mailbox. It began, “Greetings…”.

     That walk to the mailbox was the beginning of a journey that took him, a young boy who had never been out of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, to California for basic training then on to the South Pacific where he learned how to shoot Japanese planes out of the sky and from there to various military hospitals where he fought Malaria…then Dengue Fever… and finally Tuberculosis before being shipped back to the states to Minnesota where he was “warehoused” with other T.B. infected soldiers who were expected to die.

     Yet, he beat the odds, and more than five years after he pulled those two envelopes out of the mailbox at the end of the long gravel driveway, he traveled back up it to the home he had left so long before…no longer a strapping young boy with dreams of an education and success, but a sick and weak young man…beaten but not defeated…wiser but not bitter.   There is much more to the story, of course. And it’s part of a much bigger story that includes other soldiers who came back changed forever and those who never came back at all.


information for this article was gathered from Reader's Digest and Huffington Post