Why kids should know their family history

How knowledge of family history creates emotional well-being.

The road was dark and quiet – no streetlights in those days.  We were terrified and wanted to get home as quick as we could.   

This is part of a story Dad told me when I was a boy. It was wartime, 1943.  He and his friends had been at the Leederville pictures (now Luna Cinema) seeing Captive Wild Woman—the story of a doctor’s research into cross-species brain transplantation gone horribly wrong.

Now they were walking home along a dark, quiet road that today is Lake Monger Drive.

Dad (age 41) and me (age 5)

We stuck close together.  Someone kept an eye on the left, another right, and someone else on the rear – for anything that might sneak up on us.

Barry and I looked forwards.  The further we walked, the darker it got…

The story showed another side to the man I respected, and feared.  I felt more connected—seeing him not just as my father but a boy who had an active imagination like mine.  At the same time, I learned much about where he grew up, what it was like, and who his friends were—things embedded in the story and all part of ‘family history’.

The ‘DYK’ scale

Research suggests a link between the depth of our family knowledge and emotional well-being.

Psychologist Dr Robyn Fivush, one of two researchers behind a study into family history says “because our families are among the most important social groups we belong to and identify with, stories about our family tell us who we are in the world, and who we should be.”

They surveyed teenagers aged 14-16 using the “Do You Know…” scale (DYK) and discovered those who scored highly for familial knowledge also showed high levels of emotional well-being, even when controlled for general level of family functioning.

You can try the test on your own kids by clicking HERE.

Is your family history stored in an old box at the back of a cupboard?

Linking generations

Knowing that our own life story is part of a bigger narrative, i.e. that we have a strong ‘intergenerational self’ has a great impact on self-confidence.  Author of The Stories that Bind Us, Bruce Feiler, says it’s about creating a family narrative with its highs and lows, ups and downs, but an overall sense of coping well and living full lives.

He says, “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.”

So , what became of the ‘captive wild woman’?

When we got to someone’s street they’d run off home, leaving the rest of us.

Nanson Street was where I ran off; from there, Barry was on his own.

I can still see his face vividly, acting out what he and his friends went through that night.  How he acknowledged the person he once was, feelings he once had.

And his relief that Barry did indeed live to watch another movie.