April, 2, 2013

The Stories That Bind Us

“What is the secret sauce that holds a family together?”  – that was the line I recently read in Bruce Feiler’s March 15, 2013 New York Times article that woke me up.

“Wow,” I thought, “family stories are really starting to get play.” We knew our work of drawing out family lore was emotionally relevant, but I couldn’t deny how reading a full Times article focused on the topic validated something in me. We had watched our clients, usually the adult children of older parents, look at us wide-eyed when we retold them a few stories their parents had shared with us during recording session. “Oh, so that’s why we moved and why they closed the store.” We were delighted to be a part of that process of revelation, connection, and many times, pride.

I continued to read the Feilder article, nodding to myself as I sipped my Saturday morning coffee. StoryKeep’s entire existence is based on our passion for documenting family stories and helping families share their stories. Its importance, however, was a hunch. We founded StoryKeep on a feeling that we could use our documentary skills to do something powerful. The power of our work was there in black and white:

Around that time, Dr. Duke’s wife, Sara, a psychologist who works with children with learning disabilities, noticed something about her students.

“The ones who know a lot about their families tend to do better when they face challenges,” she said.

Her husband was intrigued, and along with a colleague, Robyn Fivush, set out to test her hypothesis. They developed a measure called the “Do You Know?” scale that asked children to answer 20 questions.

Examples 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?

Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivush asked those questions of four dozen families in the summer of 2001, and taped several of their dinner table conversations. 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. The “Do You Know?” scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.

“We were blown away,” Dr. Duke said.

To read Bruce Feiler’s full article, click here.

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