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September 8, 2015, 12:00 AM

The Link Between Family History and Resilience in Students


Yesterday, I posted a blog about the connection between students who know history well and their ability to display resilience. It might seem like a strange correlation, but a growing body of research now connects the two. When I know my history, I feel part of something larger and can be inspired to play my role. I’m encouraged by those who lived in tougher times and can learn from their mistakes. In a day like today—when resilience seems to be waning and stress is high—this is huge.

Today, I’d like to dig deeper on where this idea begins.

Interestingly enough, it doesn’t stem purely from knowing modern history, or even American history. It actually begins with a healthy family history. I first read about this idea when research was done on it at Emory University. New York Times writer Bruce Feiler tells the story of Dr. Marshall Duke, a prominent psychologist at Emory University in Atlanta (where I live). During the 90s, Dr. Duke was tasked with researching the nature of “myth and ritual in American families.” From his work, Dr. Duke discovered that one of the most important things a family can do is to develop a strong family narrative.

big family

“There was a lot of research at the time into the dissipation of the family,” he says. “But we were more interested in what families could do to counteract those forces.” So Dr. Duke set out to help families build and talk about their history. It proved to be quite a breakthrough.

During this same period of time, Dr. Duke’s wife, Sara — a psychologist who specializes in children with learning disabilities — made a similar discovery about her students.

“The ones who know a lot about their families tend to do better when they face challenges,” she said. Wow. What a coincidence.

Digging deeper into the research, Feiler’s article reveals further insights about this issue. “Dr. Duke said children who have the most self-confidence have what he and Dr. Fivush call a strong ‘intergenerational self.’ They know they belong to something bigger than themselves. Leaders in other fields have found similar results. Many groups use what sociologists call sense-making, the building of a narrative that explains what the group is about.”

Feiler goes on to cite the work of Jim Collins (author of Good to Great), noting that “successful human enterprises of any kind, from companies to countries, go out of their way to capture their core identity.” In Jim Collins’ terms, they “preserve the core, while stimulating progress.”

Additionally, Collins also argues that the same truth applies to families, recommending that families “create a mission statement similar to the ones companies … use to identify their core values.”

Six Steps We Can Take

If this research is indeed true, then what should we do? How can we begin to build a sense of history into our families, our classes, and our teams? Let me begin to answer these questions below with a few basic strategies:

1. Tell the tales of the past.

Take time at meals or holidays to share funny or engaging family stories. At our house, we enjoy reminiscing about past trips, experiences and mishaps.

2. Start customs and traditions.

Create unique practices that are specific to your family, things you can do on holidays, vacations, etc. We have several “Elmore customs” like popcorn night, boat-time, and service trips.

3. Create a list of values and how you can practice them.

Our family met and came up with a set of values we’d all embrace. We chose to practice service, trust, good attitudes, hospitality, faith and risk-taking.

4. Begin using language that is exclusive to your family.

Note what funny or interesting terms are used and refer back to them. We have hilarious phrases, catchwords and rhymes that are for our ears only.

5. Refer to past history when current events align.

When facing a new situation, share how it reminds you of former events. My kids know the details of stories from the lives of their parents and grandparents.

6. Celebrate milestones together.

Healthy families are full of celebrations of achievement for new life stations. Birthdays, graduations, grades and performances are all remembered.


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