Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from "The Turning: Why the State of the Family Matters, and What the World Can Do About It," by Linda and Richard Eyre. The book will be released at the end of August.
Everyone, particularly every child, needs an identity larger than himself — something he belongs to, feels part of and gains security and protection from. It is kids who do not get this identity from families who are drawn to the rituals, “colors” and traditions of gangs or other substitutes for families. Strong traditions exist in every lasting institution. Nowhere is this more true than in the family. Traditions are the glue that holds families together. Kids love and cling to family traditions because they are predictable and stable in an unpredictable world.
Almost all families have traditions that often center on holidays or other special occasions. But parents who come to real ize the importance of traditions and their ability to teach values to improve communication, to give security to kids and to hold families together can refine and redefine their family traditions and give them true and lasting bonding power.
Start by assessing and analyzing your family traditions. What do you do on each holiday? How do you celebrate family birthdays? Are there some things you do on each special day each year? Are there some monthly traditions, such as going over the calendar and the family’s schedule for the month ahead? Do you have some weekly traditions, such as a special Sunday dinner? Make a list of your yearly, monthly and weekly traditions.
Then, as a family, ask yourself three questions: How much joy, how much fun comes from each tradition? What values are taught by each? Are there some gaps— some months without a holiday or birthday tradition? With these questions in mind, revise and redesign your family traditions. Formalize them by writing them down on a chart, calendar or in a special book.
Here’s a sample of what happened to us as we went through this reassessing process.
• We revised some traditions (i.e., our Thanksgiving tradition had essentially been to eat way too much and watch football all day on TV). We decided to shift the emphasis to thanks by making a collective list (on a long roll of cash register tape) of all the little things we are thankful for. Each year, we try to “break the record” of the previous year for the number of things listed.
• We decided we needed at least one major family tradition each month — to look forward to and anticipate. Most of these centered on a birthday or holiday, but we had no set event to celebrate in May or September so we started a “Welcome Spring Day” (a hike) and a “Welcome Fall Day” (a picnic).
• We listed all the traditions, by month, in a big, leather-bound book. A little description of each tradition appears on the left and a child’s illustration of that activity appears on the right.
• We worked some of our ancestors (the kids’ great grandparents) into our traditions because we wanted our children to have that extra layer of identity of knowing where (and who) they came from. We wrote some simple bedtime stories based on real experiences of these ancestors (especially experiences that illustrated honesty, courage or other values), and we now have a little “ancestor birthday party” for them which includes “their story.”
The other thing that can help is a family narrative built around family genealogy,
Columnist and family advocate Bruce Feiler wrote a column in the New York Times in 2013 called “Stories That Bind Us.” He had become interested in what held some families together while others were falling apart.
After several years of gathering information, along with other researchers, a surprising theme emerged: The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: Develop a strong family narrative.
Researchers developed a “Do You Know?” questionnaire with 20 questions that they asked children, which 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?”
After researchers studied four dozen families, Feiler records that they discovered that “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. ... The ‘Do You Know?’ scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.”
Interestingly, one of the best indicators of resilience in children was that those who knew stories about ancestors who had overcome hard times in their lives were better able to bounce back and overcome disappointment in their own lives.
Words like “history” and “genealogy” don’t strike some of us as particularly exciting. Yet looking back into our ancestor identity is perhaps the most powerful and effective approach of all for building strong and confident identity within our children.
Anyone with a sense of where she came from (and who she came from) has a kind of security and a kind of motivation that can’t exist otherwise. Children are quick to grasp and understand that they descended from their parents, their grandparents and their great-grandparents, and that they inherited a big part of their physical, mental and emotional selves from these ancestors. By teaching our children a little genetics and a little genealogy, we can help them understand who they are and why they have certain gifts, characteristics, interests and abilities. A child who grows up feeling connections, ties, security, and identity from and within a family will feel no need to seek these same things from a gang or an Internet chat room or someone portrayed on TV who doesn’t share your family values.
It’s truly beautiful to see a child or adolescent who is proud of his nose or her hair color or his stature because it’s a lot like a grandparent’s. Or who feels she can do well in math because her great-grandfather was good with numbers. Or who makes a decision to be honest because of a story he has heard about an ancestor who made a difficult honest choice.
Kids easily make a connection to the notion that “blood is thicker than water” and that who they are comes from their family. The trick for parents is to make genealogy and family history interesting so that kids gravitate to it joyfully and naturally.
To learn more about the book and the cause it represents, please go to The-Turning.com. The Eyres are donating all royalties from the book to charity.