The summers in Arizona are unbelievable—you go to a covered park at 8 am (right before it reaches 100 degrees) trying to “get your kids’ wiggles out,” but they aren’t even wiggly yet! Come 3:00 pm, you’ve played all your indoor games, you’ve read all your books, you’ve swum in your pool twice, and you’re already on Zillow, desperately scrolling through houses for sale in Antarctica. Spoiler alert: there aren’t many listings down there.
During one of those inescapably scorching summers, my husband and I read a fascinating article entitled, “The Stories That Bind Us” (Bruce Feiler, New York Times, March 15, 2013). This article explained how research shows that children who know their family stories are more resilient and perform better on every psychological test the researcher administered.
Wow! I had studied psychology in college, so this finding was especially fascinating to me. Could simply sharing our family history stories really strengthen my children as much as this article promised? I decided to give it a try. Plus, I was desperate to do something to enrich our time as we were trapped in our air-conditioned, mid-summer bunker!
Our Family History Experiment
My experiment began simply. Each Sunday afternoon I told my three little boys about an ancestor with a pretty unique story. With crayons, they scribbled a drawing of the story on blank paper. I added a caption, then we put the stories in a binder to enjoy.
Over the course of the summer, I added a few more family history activities to the mix—playing Memory and Bingo, telling ancestor bedtime stories, making old recipes, etc. While my husband and I didn’t see huge benefits immediately, we had faith that making our ancestors come alive to our children would eventually have the desired results.
A while later, our oldest son showed us a great result of our efforts. His class was doing a “Be the Teacher” segment, and he had the opportunity to teach his fellow third graders about a topic.
Some of his classmates chose to teach about origami or chess, but Samuel immediately chose to share the story of his great-grandfather who was a fighter pilot in World War II. About this experience, Samuel wrote, “I feel special when I hear stories of my ancestors doing amazing things and think Merrill’s story is really amazing. Him doing brave things makes me want to, too!”
It worked! Sharing our family stories was working and now I want to tell every parent I meet that sharing your family stories really does help kids! Learning about their ancestors helps children gain the sense of belonging that they deeply desire but sometimes struggle to find in the outside world.
Bringing Our Family Closer
We have had so many great family moments with these activities. Last month, my children dressed in my dad’s old clothes and acted like professors, because that’s what my dad was. They wagged a long pointer at their siblings and taught us about my father’s favorite buildings.
Not only did we laugh like crazy, but we learned about my late father and came to love what he loved. When my son commented about one particularly unique building we drove by, I knew that that activity had sunk in!
Not only have our kids been strengthened by these activities, but I have been enriched by them as well. My grandmother, who passed away when I was too young to remember her, sang a beautiful lullaby to her children. With the help of my uncle and an old recording I found, I’ve reconstructed the music she wrote and now I can sing it to my own kids.
Did I do it for them? Yes. But does it bless me, too? Absolutely yes! As I sing it, I feel closer to my grandmother. I feel like I am not alone in the difficult task of raising little ones. She did it. Her mother did it. I can do it, too. Just like my kids are drawing strength and identity from these stories, I am too!
Getting Your Kids Excited About Family History
I’ve seen what a difference it has made in my family to share these stories and I highly recommend trying it out with your own family. You can even involve grandparents and other relatives and have them tell stories and do activities with your children when you visit.
It’s ok to start small and simple! Start today by telling one simple ancestor fact or story at the dinner table. It could even be a story from your own childhood. Tell another story tomorrow. Next week, hang a picture of an ancestor on the wall to remind you to tell more stories. When you run out of stories, call your mom or grandpa and ask to hear another one. Everyone has stories waiting to be told!
When you have the time and energy, you can plan a variety of activities, as elaborate or simple as you want. Our family has enjoyed treasure hunts, playing old-fashioned games, dressing up as ancestors, building forts, coloring pictures, learning languages, making jewelry, solving puzzles, planting flowers, celebrating ancestors’ birthdays, making maps, writing poems, and more! With each activity, you simply begin by telling a brief story about yourself, a family member, or an ancestor. Then do an activity with your children that relates to the story, which makes it real, and memorable.
I believe that making our ancestors come alive to our children has power. They will feel they are part of something bigger. They will feel secure when their own lives get crazy and when bad things happen in the world. They will feel confident that they can succeed. As mothers, we can tap into the power of family stories. I know our children can be better when they remember who they are and who came before them.
QUESTION: What story can you tell your family tonight at the dinner table?
CHALLENGE: Find one family history story to share with your kids this week. It can be from your own life, your parents, grandparents, or some other ancestor. And if you’re excited about bringing family history alive with your children and want more ideas, check out Charlotte’s book: Turning Little Hearts—Over 90 Activities to Connect Children with their Ancestors.
Edited by Kimberly A. Price.
Images provided by the author.