Why Children Should Learn Family History

Diahan Southard

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Research shows decided benefits for children who learn their family history. Self-identity. Self-competence. A sense of place and security. Values. Life lessons. Resilience. Who doesn’t want these for their children and grandchildren?

We are pleased to bring you this guest blog post from Shenley Puterbaugh of InspireFamilyHistory.com.

You have most likely heard a family story or two from relatives. Whether they interest you or not, these stories are important to learn and can have a significantly positive effect on your children and your posterity. Why is that?

Over the last few decades, research has been done by Emory University, the University of Wyoming and Princeton University to show the many benefits of learning and knowing your family history. The results have been fascinating!

In a New York Times article [summarizing this research], author Bruce Feiler concluded:

“The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.” (“The Stories That Bind Us,” The New York Times, March 2013)

Children and the Family Narrative

What is a family narrative? Rakesh Kumar Maurya, a researcher at the University of Wyoming specializing in narrative psychology, defines a family narrative as “the way through which children and adolescents connect across generations to create self-identity. By anchoring oneself in family history, one develops a sense of place and security that may facilitate self-confidence and self-competence” (“Use of Family Narratives as a Tool of Effective Parenting,” The International Journal of Indian Psychology, Jan. 2016, 146).

A family narrative comes from learning about ancestors and their stories. Some people piece their stories together through documents and research but others are able to hear personal and family stories from people they know.

“A personal experience/remembrance when told and retold takes the form of a story which makes it more meaningful both for the narrator as well as the listener. Also, family stories integrate other family members’ experiences making it more meaningful for the whole family. Another function of family narratives is to organize family experiences into meaningful content and use that knowledge to better prepare for future challenges. In fact, they work as a bridge between the past and the future. Family stories are a key tool for transmitting values, experiences, traditions and important life lessons to current or future generations” (Maurya, 148).

Dr. Robyn Fivush and Natalie Merrill of Emory University state, “Narratives of others, especially family members, also become part of our own autobiography and guide our personal future….As others tell us their experiences, we understand our own experiences in new ways as well, using others’ stories as frames” (“An ecological systems approach to family narratives,” Memory Studies, Vol 9 [3], [2016], 306).

Children, Family History and Resilience

Psychologist Dr. Marshall Duke of Emory University shared that his wife, Sara, also a psychologist, who works with children with learning disabilities, observed that those who know a lot about their families generally do better when facing challenges. Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivush decided to test her hypothesis and created the “Do You Know?” scale consisting of 20 questions asked to children. Among the questions are:

  • 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?

These questions were asked to 48 families during the summer of 2001 and many of their conversations during dinner were recorded. “They then compared the children’s results to a battery of psychological tests the children had taken and reached an overwhelming conclusion:

“The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.” (Feiler)

Two months later Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivush were stunned with the rest of the world by the terrorist attacks of September 11. This event had not directly affected the families they had studied but they “experienced the same national trauma at the same time.” Duke and Fivush decided to reassess the children. They concluded that “the ones who knew more about their families proved to be more resilient, meaning they could moderate the effects of stress.”

The Intergenerational Self

Learning about their family helps children overcome small challenges as well as traumatic events. Dr. Duke explained that this had to do “with a child’s sense of being part of a larger family…. children who have the most self-confidence have…. a strong ‘intergenerational self.’ They know they belong to something bigger than themselves” (Feiler).

Dr. Fivush also claimed, “Adolescents who know more family history show higher self-esteem, lower levels of behavior problems, such as withdrawal and aggression, higher sense of self-efficacy, and a more differentiated sense of self” (“Family Narratives,” Apr. 2019).

Family stories…when told and retold become a part of family narratives and play an important role in shaping personality and self of family members” (Maurya, 147). A strong family narrative coming from family history also results in resilience.

Michael Graziano, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Princeton University says, “Successful families often have examples of resilience — stories of obstacles faced and conquered together — woven through the family narrative” (“Tapping Into Strengths,” Psychotherapy Networker Magazine, May/Jun. 2008, 21).

Children and Family History: The Bottom Line

“If you want a happier family, create, refine and retell the story of your family’s positive moments and your ability to bounce back from the difficult ones. That act alone may increase the odds that your family will thrive for many generations to come.” (Feiler)

All of these benefits can help your children now and for the rest of their lives. These benefits can also be passed to your posterity. You will also benefit as you learn these stories and share them. If you and your children have these benefits when facing the trials that you and they will undoubtedly face, you will be much better prepared to weather the storms of life. Imagine the strength you and they can feel and the strength that can come to your family. Now, what are you going to do about it?

Shenley Puterbaugh headshot.jpgThanks again to Shenley Peterbaugh of InspireFamilyHistory.com for this inspiring blog post. Shenley first learned to love family history as child as her mom told her stories and helped her diagram her family tree. While homeschooling their 3 children, Shenley and her husband incorporate family history as much as possible.


Get Inspired Even More!

This fun family history activity for children or youth helps them celebrate their unique DNA pie chart—without even having to take a DNA test. Check it out!

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<a href="https://www.yourdnaguide.com/author/guideyourdnaguide-com" target="_self">Diahan Southard</a>

Diahan Southard

As founder and CEO of Your DNA Guide, Diahan Southard has been teaching people how to find family history answers in their DNA for several years, and she's been in the genetic genealogy field since its infancy. Diahan teaches internationally, writes for popular magazines, consults with leading testing companies, is author of Your DNA Guide–The Book, and producer of Your DNA Guide–the Academy, an online learning experience.


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