In an age when we are all aware of identity theft, we need to also be aware of identity ownership and of the fact that it does not come automatically to children. They need the gift of a strong and personal identity, and parents are the ones who can give it.
Do you know why kids join gangs? It is because they so badly need (in fact, they crave) an identity larger than themselves. They join for the “uniforms,” for the colors, for the tattoos, for the secret handshakes and the symbols. They join for the belonging. They join for the rituals and the traditions.
Our children’s larger-than-self identities, of course, should come from family. The traditions that we develop and the rituals we follow within our homes are the key to that identity, and the glue that holds families together.
The more transitory and mobile our society and our broader culture become, the less root structure we have as individuals. It used to be that families stayed in one location, and that kids stayed in one school. It used to be that communities had longevity, and long-term family friends helped each other in the raising of their children. Cousins and uncles and aunts were part of the formula, and grandparents were close by, if not in the same house.
Now we move more often, live further from our relatives and are all part of a much more fluid dynamic. Kids often don’t have clear answers for who they are or where they are from, and feelings of insecurity and even isolation can be the result.
But it shouldn’t be that way, and it doesn’t have to be. Parents can create a powerful culture of belonging and of connection and of identity, and the keys to the culture are roots and rituals, family ties and traditions.
Additionally, kids can feel a strong sense of identity through knowing, quite literally and genetically, where they came from.
This summer, as we held our family reunion at Bear Lake, I (Linda) got a canvas and some paint brushes and took a stab at doing a painting of a tree that has one limb for each of our kids and grandkids, and one root for each of our ancestors. Below ground, it starts with four roots that split to eight, and then to 16.) We put a photo of one of our children on each of the main branches and of our grandchildren on the branches of the branches. Then we put our own two pictures on the trunk, and a picture of one of the grandkids’ four great-grandparents on each of the four roots going down from the trunk. We even managed to find photos of the eight great-great grandparents on the next split of roots, and of the 16 great-great-great grandparents at the bottom of the root structure.
Through journals and our own memories of oral traditions, we were able to come up with at least one little story about each of the 28 ancestors represented there in the roots. There are stories of shipwrecks and cowboys, but there are also pretty mundane stories about things like walking a long way to school or churning butter. The grandkids loved them, and as they listened and traced each of the people up through the roots and trunk and onto “their” branch, we could almost feel them warming to the identity of knowing a little about the people they came from.
You may not want to be that elaborate in creating your own family narrative, but even if all you do is acquaint your kids with some of the history of some of your ancestors, it will go a long way toward giving them a great gift — the gift of identity.
Richard and Linda Eyre are New York Times best-selling authors who lecture throughout the world on family-related topics. Visit them anytime at www.EyresFreeBooks.com or www.valuesparenting.com. Their latest Deseret e-book is “On the Homefront."