Family Stories and Family Strength

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Book Cover: The Secret of Happy Families by Bruce Feiler…researchers at Emory did a study that showed that the kids who know more about their family history had a greater belief that they could control their world and a higher degree of self-confidence.
It was the number one predictor of a child's emotional well-being.
- Bruce Feiler.

Last week, a blog post pointing back to this 2013 book led me to an interesting collection of research at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. There Marshall Duke at their Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life and Robin Fivush of the Family Narratives Lab have been researching resiliency and identity formation in children, teens, and young adults. (I'll add a few more links at the bottom for anyone interested in finding out more.)

Kung Storyteller 1947The events of 9/11 provided a dramatic confirmation of their hypotheses of the power of story-telling. Fivush and Duke had been doing a series of studies giving children, adolescents, and young adults a battery of psychological tests. The intent was to find the factors effecting children’s well-being. Sparked by an insight from Duke’s child psychologist wife, Sara, they added a test of their own: the “Do You Know?” scale. This consisted of 20 questions that gauge a child’s knowledge of their family history.

Examples included: Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know where your parents met? Do you know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of your birth? (and my favorite) Do you know about a relative whose face "froze" in a grumpy position because he or she did not smile enough?

Knowledge of family stories stood out as the main factor in predicting emotional well-being or, as Duke puts it, “increased resilience, better adjustment, and improved chances of good clinical and educational outcomes..” Duke stresses that it merely knowing the stories in an abstract sense that is important but, instead, knowing stories provides an indicator of a family that spends time sharing and re-sharing the stories that make up their family narrative.

Kung Storyteller detail9/11 happened mid-way through the process of one of their studies allowing them to research emotional recovery from that event. “Once again,” Dr. Duke reports, “the ones who knew more about their families proved to be more resilient, meaning they could moderate the effects of stress.”

Reading all this was great news to me! It confirmed my intuition on the centrality of story-telling that had  been nutured in me, in part, from my own family experience. The web platform I’m attempting to build here is all about facilitating story telling among people that are already connected. I’d always assumed the next step for OutInUnder was to start providing a platform for family stories. With this new information at my finger tips, I can see the marketing campaign already<g>!

But lets take it further. What about all of our well being? Only some of us are children or young adults…although many of us prefer to believe we are. What about 20-somethings out in the world? What about seniors often living alone? Family structure is currently very fluid: what about story-telling, not among the family we’re born into, but among the family we choose?

Kung Storyteller detail

Duke, Fivush, et al focus on folks younger than 20 in Caucasian and African-American families in contemporary United States (Atlanta, Georgia, to be specific) and point out themselves the need to widen the scope culturally.

I think it needs to go further than that. One of my ongoing obsessions is evolution and, specifically, human evolution. If the contemporary US nuclear family is a bit off the norm globally, it’s positively bizarre from the perspective of the past and will likely seem odd a few hundred years into the future.

Above I added one of my favorite photos! Taken in 1947, it shows a Kung! story-teller. The photo is great as a whole and wonderful in its details. The Kung! are often studied as one of the few existing societies that closely mirrors what was very likely to have been our lifestyle during the first 50,000 years of human history. Story-telling is a central occupation among the Kung! (More on that next month.) A deep description of what story-telling does needs to encompass the Kung! as well as families in Atlanta, GA.

Kung Storyteller detailMy base assumption: stories are key to a meaningful world. Stories have a social function: stories create personal and cultural identity , they define our sense of possibility, and they help preserve touchstone values. Stories also have a individual function: our psychological growth follows a narrative structure if Jung and Campbell are correct.

I’m delighted to read academic work confirming some of my beliefs. I’m going to dig deeply into the literature and see what clues I can find to better structure this site. I’ll, of course, report here.


Further reading and video:




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AlanTabor AlanTabor's picture

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by Author AlanTabor


evy's picture
Joined: 06/12/12
This is very cool information
This is very cool information, Al. I can't wait to test out the twenty questions -- I hope I know the answers. I love your cross-cultural view of it. Thank you.
liz (not verified)
Love this! Can't wait to see
Love this! Can't wait to see if I can find the 20 questions. I may use it as a Thanksgiving Family quiz at Katie's.
Hello admin,
Hello admin, Your posts are always well-referenced and credible.
Hi webmaster,
Hi webmaster, You always provide great insights.
To the admin,
To the admin, Thanks for the comprehensive post!

Your comments are loved and appreciated.

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