The year 2021 has become a time of deep reflection and soul-searching for many families. Many of us are grappling with questions like, “What can I do during this time to help my children persevere?” and “How can I help them come out of this stronger?”
Whether you have school-aged children and you’re balancing distance learning on top of work and other responsibilities, or you have adult children who you’ve invited back home, we all want to help the younger generation adapt to this new world of uncertainty and strengthen their resiliency. Particularly among families of wealth, there is anxiety about how the stresses impacting young people could diminish their involvement in, and commitment to, the family’s legacy and vision.
The good news is that all of this isolating at home offers a unique opportunity to bring the family together. Specifically, you can help cultivate resilience in the young people in your life by taking a simple yet powerful action – share your story.
What the research says.
In 2001, psychologists Dr. Marshall Duke and Dr. Robyn Fivush, tested a hypothesis set forth by Dr. Duke’s wife: her students who knew more about their families handled challenges better.
The psychologists developed 20 questions to test a child’s knowledge of his or her family, such as “Do you know where your grandparents met?” or, “Do you know the source of your name?” They asked these questions of nearly 50 families, while also having the children take a number of psychological tests. The results were clear: children who knew more about their family history had higher self-esteem and sense of control.
According to Dr. Fivush, children who know their family story have a strong “intergenerational self,” meaning they begin to see themselves as part of a broader family tapestry, as opposed to one weak thread. Children learn from and identify with stories where family members have faced and overcome challenges.
To make the most of the unprecedented amount of “together time” many of us now have with our families, here are three ideas on how to make meaningful connections with the young people in your life that will serve them well for years to come:
Talk about your ancestors.
Start simply and broadly: Who are your ancestors and where did they come from? It may be helpful to sketch out a family tree to guide your narrative. Ask the young people in your family to share what they know about the people on the tree, or have them write out a fact about each family member. Once they have had a chance to consider what they already know, help them fill in the blanks. Note questions that you cannot answer and research them. Reach out to other family members to help elaborate on the family story.
Share your story.
While your children know you as mom or dad (or grandmother or grandfather), they might not know you well outside of that role. What was life like when you were a child? What was your dream job? What risks have you taken in life and how did they turn out? What global events took place in your life to date, and how did they impact you? Ask your spouse or partner these questions while younger family members are present. Be sure to engage everyone in the conversation.
Tell the good along with the bad.
Be realistic in your story-telling and acknowledge both the challenges faced and the successes achieved. If we only focus on success, we may veer into mythicization territory, where we see our ancestors as super-human and their actions and successes as unachievable by mere mortals (thus why try?) Similarly, focusing solely on losses might make the younger generation feel it’s not worth the effort (again, why try?) When we talk about the ups and downs of life, it shows we are human and no different than anyone else. Yes, every family faces challenges, but by coming together and focusing on shared values and vision, the family can persevere.
When we think of the word inheritance, a sum of money may come to mind. Or perhaps the more science-minded person thinks of DNA and genetics. But we also are inheritors of our ancestor’s passions, strengths, ideas, and decisions. It is important to look back and not allow those stories to be forgotten. They may be the key to your family’s success and longevity.