The value of knowing family stories

According to research presented in this New York Times article, children who know about their family tend to do better when confronted with life’s challenges. They say this because the children understand that they are a part of something larger than themselves. Their research found that the level of knowledge about one’s family is the “single best predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.”

                          My Grandpa Chris Stenberg pitching bundles of oats into a threshing machine.

                          My Grandpa Chris Stenberg pitching bundles of oats into a threshing machine.

My own experience: I became more interested in family history when I found WWII letters of my Grandpa Chris. These letters led me to a deeper understanding of some of the biggest trials of his life like: being a home-body away from home for 3.5 years; being shot at; dealing with the death of two brothers and many comrades-in-arms; and feeling that he couldn’t always trust what the Army was saying would happen next. Not that he didn’t express frustration or sadness during these times, yet he persevered through them. Wow, what a real-life example I have to look up to when I am frustrated by the circumstances I find myself in.

But like any family, as long as you dig a bit, not everything I learned is something to be proud of. Squabbles about inheritance among siblings, people who don’t know how to express themselves emotionally, finding out that one of my great-grandparents likely committed suicide-- things like these, are they good for me to know? Does it lead to resilience?

Back to the researchers: The article talks of three “narratives” that families can be lumped into:

  • Ascending: family who started with nothing and then grows to have everything
  • Descending: family who started with everything and ends up with nothing
  • Oscillating: family who experienced both ups and downs and yet sticks together

The researchers see the oscillating family narrative as the “most healthful” for a child.  

Back to my thoughtsFor me, I feel that I’m a part of an oscillating family narrative that serves both as inspiration and warning for my approach to life. I am grateful for the family stories that I know, even the disappointing ones.  

Now, I’m not saying that all stories need to be disclosed to a kid at a young age, and I’m certain there are examples where it might be best to “let bygones be bygones,” but I think that that is more the exception than the rule. If you approach the idea of learning of/sharing your family stories with humbleness (realizing there are both positive and negative ones), I think most everyone can come out with both some inspiration and warning for one’s own life.

Lastly, I want to emphasize the fourth word of the title of this post: “knowing.” Yes it is great to have been a part of stories, but if they aren’t preserved (like my grandpa's WWII letters), they will likely be lost to the sands of time. If you are looking for a way to preserve some of your family stories, consider booking a video memoir with us ;).