Family Narrative

I recently came across an interesting article by Bruce Feiler in The New York Times that referenced a study by Emory University psychologist Marshall P. Duke. What he found, among other things, was that the more children know about their family’s history, the more they feel a sense of control over their lives and the stronger their self-esteem. He concluded that these children are more resilient, meaning they can better moderate the effects of stress.

At the same time, the psychologist noted that children with the most self-confidence have a strong “intergenerational self.” They know they belong to something bigger than themselves. He also noted that the single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: Develop a strong family narrative.

This study reinforced how important it is for us to share our personal histories with our children. Recently, as we were cleaning out our offices in preparation for a move of my family’s business, I came across an old United States passport. It was dated 1926 and belonged to my great-grandfather. He arrived in this country from Lithuania in the 1880s.

I found it particularly interesting that the passport photo included my great-grandmother. Seeing them together immediately sparked memories of stories I had heard about their early lives in this country.

It’s at times like these, when I find an old relic, souvenir or photo, that I realize it is important to share my family’s stories with my children. I want them to understand their history and how they are part of a bigger picture. It is also an opportunity to illustrate how these stories shape our values and, in turn, our charitable giving.

The Associated’s Center for Funds & Foundations recognizes the importance of passing down one’s values to the next generation. This can be done in informal settings, beginning with conversations around the dinner table, and can also be more formal, such as writing an ethical will or capturing your story on videotape.

Next month is Passover. Many of us will gather around the Seder table with family and retell one of the most significant stories of our people’s history — that of the exodus from Egypt. “Remember” is the theme of the evening: “Remember that you were strangers in the land of Egypt. … Remember that the Lord took you out of the bondage of slavery.”

Sharing stories gives the next generation a connection to their past. But Passover is also a perfect time to recount your own personal history. Consider adding the following four questions to your Seder this year to spark conversation about your family’s story:

• Do you know where your grandparents grew up?
• Do you know how your parents met?
• Do you know who you were named after?
• Do you know who you most resemble?

These questions and the discussion that follows likely will help your children appreciate their roots and feel a part of something bigger than themselves. The more children know about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successful their belief in their family’s function. It will help the next generation glean meaningful information that will be passed down through the years.

Dan Hirschhorn is chair of the Center for Funds & Foundations at The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

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