Why has Disney cashed in on animating fairy tales and creating theme parks about them? Perhaps because their message is universal. Fairy tales are just stories about families and overcoming adversity. Little Red Riding Hood had a caring mother who sent her to visit a sick grandma (by way of a forest and a pesky wolf). Cinderella lived in a “blended family” (as we would call it today) and overcame her dire circumstances with hope, hard work and help from a few animal friends. The Five Chinese Brothers used the special skills of each sibling to survive execution, thus showing that five siblings working together are stronger than each one on his own.
Children have been told these traditional stories in countries throughout the world for centuries. These tales emboldened children who might have felt powerless otherwise, offered them optimism where cynicism was all too common, and taught them that no matter who you are, you can rise above your status-quo state of mind. Who doesn’t need those messages? We pay a lot to hear them!
Could we also use our own family stories to teach children these same lessons? Absolutely, yes! and they don’t have to be heroic deeds by knights in our family tree. In fact, they can also be stories of disappointment and loss, but ones that teach us appreciation for what we have and how we can do better.
Sharing family narratives is a lost art and one we should all recognize and foster within families. I was impressed to see research by Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivush that found 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 Stories That Bind Us,” New York Times, March 15, 2013).
Knowing stories where ancestors overcame compelling challenges helps children know they can also succeed. Furthermore, those with a strong “intergenerational self” (knowing they belong to something greater than themselves), have the most self-confidence and emotional stability. Like Simba from “The Lion King,” seeing his father, Mufasa, in a vision:
Rafiki: Look down there.
Simba: [looks into a pool of water] That’s not my father. That’s just my reflection.
Rafiki: No, look harder. [touches the water, as it ripples Simba’s reflection changes to that of his father]
Rafiki: You see? He lives in you.
Mufasa: [from above] Simba.
Mufasa: [appears among the stars] Simba, you have forgotten me.
Simba: No. How could I?
Mufasa: You have forgotten who you are and so have forgotten me. Look inside yourself, Simba. You are more than what you have become. You must take your place in the Circle of Life.
Simba: How can I go back!? I’m not who I used be!
Mufasa: Remember who you are. You are my son and the one true king. Remember…
Simba: We’ll always be together, right?
Mufasa: Simba, let me tell you something my father told me. Look at the stars, the great kings of the past are up there, watching over us.
Mufasa: Yes. So whenever you feel alone just remember that those kings will always be there to guide you and so will I.
Bruce Feiler, author and motivational speaker, challenges us to tell our children where they came from as we raise them to go forward and carve their own paths. It’s another way of saying, “I’ve got your back and so do many others behind you.” I do this by saying something like this to a child: “Your great sense of humor helps you see the world in such a positive way. You inherited that gift from your grandma.” The Ugly Ducklings in the family have hope that one day they will grow into the strong, beautiful adults in their lives. When one of my daughters visited Hawaii on a vacation, I reminded her of a story from her great-grandfather’s life, my grandfather, who had a near-death experience there. It made that location so much more personal to her. It physically connected her to an ancestor she has never met.
One way to assess how well children know their extended family is to ask them simple “What Do You Know” questions. “Do you know where your grandparents were born?” “Do you know where your parents went to high school?” These could be done casually at mealtime, at bedtime, or while driving in the car. In Duke and Fivush’s study, children who scored highest on these questions also felt the highest sense of control over their lives, had higher self-esteem and belief in their family’s ability to function.
After our family Easter Egg Hunt this year, my husband and I sat four of our children down and asked them to write down the answers to 20 “What Do You Know” family history questions. The winner would get a big bonus chocolate bar for their Easter basket. We weren’t sure how they would respond to this activity since “family history” isn’t high on their lists of Fun Things I Do With My Parents.
It was quite startling to see how eager they were to participate (maybe it was just enthusiasm over more chocolate) and even turned hilarious at times. Our kids put down really funny answers when he didn’t know the correct ones (to the question: “What was the name of the ranch in Wyoming where your great-grandparents lived in a cabin?” one wrote, “Hell” instead of “Hillard”).
They didn’t score very well (the highest was 12/20) but the activity was so successful, my husband and I decided to make it an annual Easter Day tradition. I’m sure it won’t guarantee a Happily Ever After, but it does something even better: gives them power to slay their own dragons and find their own way home.