Most of us are focused on getting to Pesach at this time of year. We are cleaning, shopping, cooking, and preparing for company with long task lists to accomplish. Our goal is coming to seder night with a chometz-free home, to tell the story of our redemption from Egypt and our formation as a holy nation with our generations at our sides. Our goal is to perform the mitzvos of the night together with grandparents and grandchildren.
Many turn this night of narration of national miracles into personal narratives as well. Often holocaust survivors finally open up and recount the many miracles that kept them alive through the Nazi hell. Together with their children around them who are a living proof of victory over the Nazis, they express thanks for the miracle of their survival and recite Hallel with special fervor. Others will recount their personal miracles of salvation from adversity and danger.
A while ago, I came across interesting research. Dr. Marshall Duke is a psychologist at Emory University. He was conducting research on the collapse of the American family several years ago and examining myth and ritual as a way of counteracting forces that dissipate family bonds. His wife Sara, a psychologist who works with children with learning disabilities, noticed something about her students. The ones who knew a lot about their families tended to better when they faced challenges.
Dr. Marshall Duke and his colleague Dr. Robyn Fivush tested her hypothesis. They composed a scale of 20 questions to ask children about their families. They called it the Do You Know Scale and it included questions such as where did your grandparents grow up, where did your parents go to high school, what tragedies occurred in your family and how did your parents meet. They asked these questions during the summer of 2001, taped dinner conversations, and conducted psychological testing.
The conclusion was overwhelming. The more kids 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.
Then 9/11 happened. The two psychologists decided this was a great opportunity to measure the children’s reaction to trauma. They went back to reevaluate the same children, kids who were affected by the event indirectly like the rest of the population beyond New York. Again, the ones who knew more about their families proved to be more resilient than the control group. They were able to moderate the effects of stress.
How does knowing the answers to the twenty questions help a child overcome a minor thing such as a skinned knee and a major event like a terrorist attack?
Being part of a larger family and its narrative is the answer. A sense of belonging to a unit with a history helps kids develop resilience.
There are three kinds of family narratives. The ascending narrative typically describes success from humble beginnings. The descending narrative has a sad ending. The oscillating family narrative tells of ups and downs: good things happened, bad things happened, and we stuck together. This is the most healthy narrative and develops a strong intergenerational self in children.
Since the original Emory University research, subsequent research shows that most happy families communicate a positive story of meeting challenges, experiencing setbacks, and overcoming challenges.
It’s important for us to tell our family stories of surviving and thriving despite adversity all year long beyond Pesach when it is a mitzvah to recount our miraculous national narrative. If we want to have happy, resilient progeny, we need to tell them their complete family narrative, warts and all.
A veteran nonprofit leader, Faigie Horowitz, MS is a columnist, motivational speaker, and active community rebbetzin in Lawrence.