The Power of Family History: identity and well-being

Children who report knowing more stories about their family history show higher levels of emotional well-being and higher levels of identity achievement.

From birth, children are surrounded by stories. These stories from parents, about them, about parents, about grandparents, are a powerful frame for children to understand the world and themselves. This family storytelling can provide children with a sense of identity through their family history.

It is suggested that family stories are a critical part of children’s emerging identity and well-being. Using a 20-question scale, known as the “Do You Know Scale” (DYK), a team of researchers from Emory University measured children’s knowledge of their family history and inter-generational family stories. The DYK scale was designed to measure:

…knowledge of things that children could not possibly have learned first hand, either because they happened before the children were born or they involved family members that were less familiar to them than parents and grandparents. Given this limitation, the children who knew the information would therefore have had to receive it from others through stories, writings or other indirect sources. Duke (2013)

The key findings from the study suggested that children (adolescents) who scored highly on the DYK scale displayed:

…higher levels of self-esteem, an internal locus of control (a belief in one’s own capacity to control what happens to him or her), better family functioning, lower levels of anxiety, fewer behavioral problems, and better chances for good outcomes if a child faces educational or emotional/behavioral difficulties (Duke 2013).

The findings of the study are promising. But, it is important to make clear that simply teaching children facts about their families – current and historical – will not result in a guaranteed enhancement of the child’s self-esteem and family functioning, or a reduction in levels of anxiety and behavioural problems. These findings appear to reflect certain processes that exist in families whose members know their histories.

One such process is the communication of family information across generations; important questions about this process would include “Who is passing this information?” and “When is this information transmitted?” Duke (2013)

This research found that family stories were more likely to be transferred by mothers and grandmothers, typically during family dinners, family holidays (vacations) and special celebrations (such as Christmas, Easter, Halloween). Families with high levels of cohesiveness were more likely to share these regular family dinners, holidays and celebrations, contributing to the development of a strong sense of the intergenerational self; a self that is defined as much by one’s place in a familial history as a personal past (Fivush, R., Bohanek, J. G., & Duke, M. 2008). It is this intergenerational self and the personal strength and moral guidance that seem to be based on it that are associated with increased resilience, better adjustment, and improved chances of good clinical and educational outcomes (Duke 2013)

Families often shield children from the truth but negative stories can be even more important than positive ones for fostering emotional resilience (Duke cited in Hardy 2017).

Despite some of the limitations of the research, the findings provide valuable insight to the power of family history as a framework for discovering, preserving and communicating family stories. If nothing else, it seems that a key message for creating a happier family is to talk, a lot.

See also: The Importance of Family History

Cover photo by Larm Rmah on Unsplash


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6 thoughts on “The Power of Family History: identity and well-being

  1. Interesting post Dan. I think one of the most important points you raise here is that it gets families to communicate, which seems to be becoming more difficult in this digital age.

    1. Which is ironic, as (most) digital technologies are designed to enhance communication… Lots of debate out there about how these technologies can be better used. The links to individual well-being and identity are worth exploring further (and I will be doing some of this).

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