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From Family Dinners to Family Stories—Another Path to Resilience

7/31/2013 8:00:00 AM
Written By:
Jane Ferguson, LCSW

While raising my two children, I was acutely aware of studies showing the benefit of family dinners in reducing risky behaviors and promoting school achievement in children. Like many other busy parents of busy kids, I struggled to create this meaningful family time, scrambling for quick recipes and insisting that reluctant teens take at least 15 minutes to sit at the table. On many days we only managed to exchange a few words between mouthfuls before taking off for the next activity.

Eating meals together as a family is still linked to these benefits, according to current research. But if you are one of the busy parents who rarely manage to accomplish this, you can stop feeling guilty. Food is not the only way to forge family connections and promote well-being. A recent quiz in Parade Magazine (February 17, 2013) compared the effect of several activities on children's well-being. When matched against eating a consistent breakfast, sports participation, and regular attendance at religious services, children who knew more about their personal and family history had higher self-esteem and a greater sense of control over their lives.

Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush of Emory University, who conducted the original research in 2001, used a measure that asked children 20 questions about their families. Those who could answer more questions about their families tended to be the most resilient. Resilience is defined as the ability to recover quickly from adverse events, and is generally considered a positive indicator for mental health and happiness. The authors speculate that learning about family history is effective because it helps children feel connected to something larger than themselves. Fraternities, sororities, religious organizations and community groups know the importance of this; new members are steeped in their history and traditions to create a sense of roots and belonging. The need to be part of a tribe seems hard-wired in our species.

Learning about your family through shared stories not only strengthens a sense of connection, but can serve as inspiration. When you learn that your grandmother raised five children on her own and worked two jobs in order to send them all to college, chances are good you will feel pride in this heritage of strength and independence, and recognize the value of self-reliance and education in your own life. The abstract values we try to instill in our children-compassion, hard work, courage, commitment-become more real and seem more possible when attached to family members, even those we have never met. A biological relationship is not even required; traditions are more about culture than genetics. Family stories help us build a meaningful narrative that shapes our core values and provides a strong base for developing a sense of self. Maybe this is what our teachers had in mind all along when they assigned those autobiographical essays and family tree projects in school.

One more thing -not all narratives are equally effective. The most effective type of family story is called the 'oscillating' narrative, in which family members have been through ups and downs, all the while sticking together, loving one another, and enduring as a family. So take heart, your family story does not have to be perfect. In fact, it's better if it's not.

So take a minute and think about the story of your family. Are you a family that cares for others and always has room for one more at the dinner table? Are you a family that never gives up or always finds a way to make lemonade from life's lemons? Get out the family scrapbook and show your son the picture of his great-grandmother who came to this country looking for adventure and a better life. On the way to soccer practice, tell your daughter about your oldest brother who saved up his allowance to buy food for stray animals. You don't need long stories or intricate details. A few sentences about an interesting ancestor (or even yourself!) can light your children's imagination and get them thinking about how some of these qualities might live inside of them. And you don't even have to turn on the stove to reap the benefits….although a family dinner now and then couldn't hurt.

Jane Ferguson received her Master's Degree in Social Work from Rutgers University and is licensed in Virginia as a clinical social worker and school social worker. She has over 30 years of professional experience working with children and families in outpatient, inpatient, and military settings and is currently employed by Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools where she serves as Lead Social Worker. She also serves as school representative on the Family Assessment and Planning Teams for James City County and the City of Williamsburg. Helping children develop and thrive by building on their strengths and supports is a core value of her professional practice.

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