“Do you remember when . . .”

The way families communicate and share stories–such as reminiscing about a beloved pet that died or recounting episodes from a favorite trip–can have an impact on their children’s well being, according to researchers from Emory’s Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life.

Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Psychology Robyn Fivush and Charles Howard Candler Professor of Psychology Marshall Duke decided to find out more about family members’ interactions by recording the mealtime conversations of forty families in metro Atlanta.

Families were encouraged to talk about shared events and experiences (“Tell us about a vacation, a family reunion, or the birth or death of a family member”), and the children were questioned about their family’s history (“Do you know how your parents met? Where they grew up? Where they went to school?”).

After observing the families and analyzing transcripts, Fivush and Duke discovered that the amount of family history known by a child is related to the child’s level of self-esteem and how well the family functions as a whole.

“These narratives, often told again and again, define the shape of each family’s emotional life,” says Fivush. “It’s not as if children who come from families that don’t tell stories turn out to be juvenile delinquents. But this is an important way in which children understand themselves, who they are and what they are a part of, and how to feel emotionally secure.”

Stories about family heroes–relatives or ancestors who did something good or who survived hard times–are particularly effective in providing children with a sense of family continuity and resilience. “Rather than minimizing the possibility that more bad things will happen,” Duke says, “we have to teach children how to overcome troubled times.”

The telling of detailed, embellished, and emotionally rich family stories appears to be a skill that is passed down through the generations.

“Parents and children [who tell stories] of their shared past are creating and maintaining strong and secure emotional bonds,” says Fivush. “Family narratives are not simply about what has happened in the past; they are very much a part of the way in which families recreate themselves . . . in the present.”–M.J.L.




© 2004 Emory University