Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Happy Families Know Their History

 

Bruce Feiler’s new book, The Secret of Happy Families, has a lot of useful advice for anyone who finds himself in one. A lot of it isn’t revolutionary — communication, simple checklists, that sort of thing — but one secret he stresses took me by surprise.

Happy families, Feiler writes, know their family history:

Marshall and Robyn asked those questions of four dozen families in the summer of 2001, and also taped several of their dinner table conversations. They then compared the children’s results to a battery of psychological tests and reached some overwhelming conclusions. 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.

It also helps, I imagine, that these were families with “dinner table conversations” to be taped in the first place. We already know that families that eat a regular dinner together tend to be happier and more stable.

But I don’t think I would have guessed, without prompting, the value of knowing your family history — who came before you, who got married to whom, who arrived in this country when, how we got to where we live, who we look like — but when I wrote it all out just now, it seems elemental. How can you really be a happy and functioning member of a family if you don’t know who you are or who you’ve been?

I wonder, though, if it’s the act of telling the stories — passing down the legends and the half-true tales — that’s more important than the actual historical record.

Image Credit: Flickr user Lars Plougmann.

There are 46 comments.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  1. Nick Stuart Inactive

    Rob Long:

    I wonder, though, if it’s the act of telling the stories — passing down the legends and the half-true tales — that’s more important than the actual historical record. 

    Like the story of getting our high cheekbones and recipe for Pow Wow Chow from our distant Cherokee ancestors? (Sorry, couldn’t resist that hanging softball).

    Feiler may have a point though.

    • #1
    • September 4, 2014, at 5:15 AM PST
    • Like
  2. Eustace C. Scrubb Member

    It seems to me knowing family history is a kind of mini-patriotism. We need to know we are a part of something greater than ourselves, something of value. Knowing the Founding Fathers and the Constitution makes us better Americans. Knowing the sacrifices grandparents made and how Dad won Mom’s love makes us better “family citizens”.

    • #2
    • September 4, 2014, at 5:19 AM PST
    • Like
  3. Essgee Inactive

    As the researcher in my family of all things genealogical, I have found this to be true.

    You start searching for those that went before, their lives, their children, what they did, where they went…everyday things that are applicable to us all. You look for ancestors…but what you find is living relatives. Distant cousins who share the same great-grandparents that you never knew about…so your family grows and you develop new relationships based upon that commonality.

    In a world where we keep hearing about the celebration of diversity, the search for family is the search for sameness. We begin to see others as part of ourselves, from the same roots, and not so much different as we might have thought. We begin to share our humanity. And the larger our family connections become, the more of humanity we relate to. And we loose our fear of others because we find out they are only us in a different branch of the same tree.

    • #3
    • September 4, 2014, at 5:22 AM PST
    • Like
  4. genferei Member

    Four dozen families. Several tape-recorded conversations. A battery of psychological tests. Such science!

    By the way, when does the carousel go away so some editor doesn’t have to spend literally minutes a day choosing unilluminating stock photos.

    • #4
    • September 4, 2014, at 5:31 AM PST
    • Like
  5. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher

    We used family names for our kids.

    • #5
    • September 4, 2014, at 5:39 AM PST
    • Like
  6. Seawriter Member

    Rob Long: But I don’t think I would have guessed, without prompting, the value of knowing your family history — who came before you, who got married to whom, who arrived in this country when, how we got to where we live, who we look like — but when I wrote it all out just now, it seems elemental.

     We have an extended family dinner every Sunday – Quilter, her father (in his nineties), her brother and any of Quilter and my adult children that are in town that weekend. After dinner my father-in-law tells a story about his family. These can be as far ranging as his great–great grandfather’s service in the war of 1812 to stories of growing up in Indiana in the 1920s or the work he did for NASA in the 1950s-1970s.

    I record these conversations and send them to his grandkids. I recommend everyone do the same in their family. I wrote about it here.

    Seawriter

    • #6
    • September 4, 2014, at 5:47 AM PST
    • Like
  7. Look Away Inactive

    We are…” dwarfs on the shoulders of giants” Edmund Burke.

    • #7
    • September 4, 2014, at 5:47 AM PST
    • Like
  8. Richard O'Shea Coolidge

    In doing research on our family, I found out my wife can trace her ancestors directly back to Stephen Hopkins, who came across on the Mayflower. Another branch is part Shawnee Indian – but I found out too late to apply for minority scholarships for our kids.
    Her family goes so far back, yet there seems to be no accumulated wealth anywhere……
    There have been fascinating stories to unearth on both sides of the family.

    • #8
    • September 4, 2014, at 6:06 AM PST
    • Like
  9. Pencilvania Inactive

    Years ago I taught a little after-school class to about 8 third-grade girls (one was my daughter), based on ideas from the American Girl books. One session suggested having each girl make a little presentation and talk about their family history, so I assigned it for one week’s homework. All the girls were very excited and proud to tell what they’d learned about their ancestors, showing photos, etc. My heart kind of stuck in my throat, though, when one little girl got up to talk – I had not realized until then that she was adopted. With a big smile she showed a large photo of her extended Filipino family, told about where she’d been born, who was still there, and how she was adopted. Her American mom, who stayed to watch the girls’ talks, told me afterwards it had been a truly wonderful and meaningful project for their family to do together.

    • #9
    • September 4, 2014, at 6:15 AM PST
    • Like
  10. Eustace C. Scrubb Member

    Researching my family history, one finds treasure hunters (cool!) and coal miners, but also Klan members and bank robbers (not so cool.) But our kids know and treasure the stories of the white, black and striped sheep.

    • #10
    • September 4, 2014, at 6:19 AM PST
    • Like
  11. KC Mulville Inactive

    Eustace C. Scrubb:

    It seems to me knowing family history is a kind of mini-patriotism.

    I’d say the reverse … patriotism follows after family. 

    I’m of Irish ancestry, and there’s a strong sense of the Clan. When I was a kid, we used to have a banjo that was carried in the Civil War by the first of our clan in America, Francis Mulville. He was the one who changed the family name from Mulvihill to Mulville. 

    I grew up in a neighborhood that was all Irish or Italian, just outside the city line of Philadelphia. Everyone knew where their family was from. All the Irish knew whether they were from, like Cork or Sligo (we were Roscommon). All the Italians knew their clan’s origin. 

    That’s why I was astonished when I started teaching. The first day, I’d ask the students where their families were from. Few of them had any idea. Quite a few of them didn’t know what their ancestry was. That just amazes me.

    The cultural demand for “diversity,” really, tries to get it by obliterating differences, not by celebrating them. What a loss!

    • #11
    • September 4, 2014, at 6:22 AM PST
    • Like
  12. Eustace C. Scrubb Member

    KC Mulville – I agree with your reversal.

    • #12
    • September 4, 2014, at 6:46 AM PST
    • Like
  13. Misthiocracy grudgingly Member

    My greatx6 grandfather had a book written about him.

    I should be happier.

    • #13
    • September 4, 2014, at 6:49 AM PST
    • Like
  14. Rob Long Founder
    Rob Long Post author

    KC Mulville:

    The cultural demand for “diversity,” really, tries to get it by obliterating differences, not by celebrating them. What a loss!

     So true. And true of “diversity” movements in every sphere. It’s never about being different. It’s always about thinking and doing the same.

    • #14
    • September 4, 2014, at 7:16 AM PST
    • Like
  15. Aaron Miller Member

    Eustace C. Scrubb: We need to know we are a part of something greater than ourselves, something of value. [….]

    I suspect one reason knowing one’s family history might correlate with general happiness and productivity is that the mere interest in one’s family history reflects an interest beyond oneself and one’s own immediate world. 

    • #15
    • September 4, 2014, at 7:33 AM PST
    • Like
  16. Rob Long Founder
    Rob Long Post author

    Aaron Miller:

    Eustace C. Scrubb: We need to know we are a part of something greater than ourselves, something of value. [….]

    I suspect one reason knowing one’s family history might correlate with general happiness and productivity is that the mere interest in one’s family history reflects an interest beyond oneself and one’s own immediate world.

     Agree. And it works the other way, too. It tells the person on the receiving end of the story that they’re worth telling it to. That they have a place in the timeline, that they will have a story to tell as well.

    • #16
    • September 4, 2014, at 7:49 AM PST
    • Like
  17. Dan Campbell Member

    Look Away:

    We are…” dwarfs on the shoulders of giants” Edmund Burke.

     Not to be pedantic, … but I will be. That idea goes back at least to the 12th century through Bernard of Chartres. It was popularized by Isaac Newton’s reflection, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Edmond Burke said many memorable things, but not that one.

    Ok, I’m done being a jerk. For now.

    • #17
    • September 4, 2014, at 7:55 AM PST
    • Like
  18. Hartmann von Aue Member

    I think this is especially important with adopted children, who need to know both the history of their adoptive family and their family of origin. Vrouwe and I were very deliberate in cultivating our relationship with Maedel’s biological maternal grandparents when they were still with us. And in the process, we discovered a downright providential dual coincidence in her grandfather’s past, mine, and Vrouwe’s. Mel was from the area near Cincinnati originally, which is where Vrouwe’s father was from, and his grandparents on his father’s side were Eastern Cherokee. Well, I, too, have an Eastern Cherokee ancestor, much further removed than his,mine dating to the 1840’s and being known in family history as just a line in a list of records and his having raised him when he was a boy. It was an interesting connection for us all.

    • #18
    • September 4, 2014, at 7:59 AM PST
    • Like
  19. jmelvin Member

    Over the past few years I have taken an interest in my family roots and have done some digging, mostly with the hard work of a cousin. Although I certainly enjoyed hearing stories about family as a child and as an adult, it has been wonderful for me to see the connection of my parents families to the early times of this nation, particularly prior to the American Revolution. In some ways the research has had a settling effect as I pause to consider the turmoil that these various predecessors must have seen in their own lives, from the split of the colonies from Great Britain, to the turmoil of the Civil War and the effect it had in dividing communities and neighbors in the border states.

    As best I can tell my most of my family was here in the colonies prior to the Revolution, but I still need to do some more digging to say if it was all of the my direct line. However, my children could be the first in my direct line to not come from a line directly tied to the colonies. Just the same, my wife’s family has its own stories and history that our future children will be able to see and conclude that despite hard times, people hunker down and make life work with hard work, love for each other, and trust in the Creator. They will also see that hardship is as much a part of life as the joyous times.

    *Edited after recollecting that I haven’t yet verified that all of my direct line was here prior to the split with the Brits.

    • #19
    • September 4, 2014, at 8:09 AM PST
    • Like
  20. Look Away Inactive

    Dan Campbell:

    Look Away:

    We are…” dwarfs on the shoulders of giants” Edmund Burke.

    Not to be pedantic, … but I will be. That idea goes back at least to the 12th century through Bernard of Chartres. It was popularized by Isaac Newton’s reflection, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Edmond Burke said many memorable things, but not that one.

    Ok, I’m done being a jerk. For now.

     No problem, but take it up with Russell Kirk. I learned the quote from the “Conservative Mind” .

    • #20
    • September 4, 2014, at 8:22 AM PST
    • Like
  21. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor

    genferei:

    Four dozen families. Several tape-recorded conversations. A battery of psychological tests. Such science!

    By the way, when does the carousel go away so some editor doesn’t have to spend literally minutes a day choosing unilluminating stock photos.

    Unilluminating? I was groping for a word, but it wasn’t that one. Am I the only one who looked at that photo and couldn’t figure it out? I mean, I doubt the happiest of families are those in which there are two wives.

    Maybe the other one’s an aunt, or a girlfriend?

    • #21
    • September 4, 2014, at 8:32 AM PST
    • Like
  22. BastiatJunior Member

    My wife and I are always talking about our family history to our daughters. I was doing it because I like to hear myself talk.

    It’s nice to know some actual good might come from it.

    • #22
    • September 4, 2014, at 8:52 AM PST
    • Like
  23. jmelvin Member

    Oh Claire, how 1950s! The two women are married and the man is their live-in housekeeper.

    • #23
    • September 4, 2014, at 8:54 AM PST
    • Like
  24. Casey Inactive

    Claire Berlinski:

    genferei:

    Four dozen families. Several tape-recorded conversations. A battery of psychological tests. Such science!

    By the way, when does the carousel go away so some editor doesn’t have to spend literally minutes a day choosing unilluminating stock photos.

    Unilluminating? I was groping for a word, but it wasn’t that one. Am I the only one who looked at that photo and couldn’t figure it out? I mean, I doubt the happiest of families are those in which there are two wives.

    Maybe the other one’s an aunt, or a girlfriend?

     Funny, I was too busy checking out the food to notice that.

    • #24
    • September 4, 2014, at 9:15 AM PST
    • Like
  25. Casey Inactive

    And nobody’s wearing shoes!

    I really had something to say here but now I can’t concentrate.

    • #25
    • September 4, 2014, at 9:20 AM PST
    • Like
  26. Essgee Inactive

    Richard O’Shea

    In doing research on our family, I found out my wife can trace her ancestors directly back to Stephen Hopkins, who came across on the Mayflower. Another branch is part Shawnee Indian – but I found out too late to apply for minority scholarships for our kids.
    Her family goes so far back, yet there seems to be no accumulated wealth anywhere……
    There have been fascinating stories to unearth on both sides of the family.

    Actually, for all of us alive today…all our families go “way back” . :-)

    • #26
    • September 4, 2014, at 9:36 AM PST
    • Like
  27. Karen Inactive

    In high school I asked my paternal grandfather to put in writing his stories of growing up in Texas during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression. They’re a treasure. There’s a story he wrote about earning money collecting pelts when he was only eight. I bring up that story to my boys when they complain about cleaning their rooms.

    • #27
    • September 4, 2014, at 9:38 AM PST
    • Like
  28. Essgee Inactive

    Claire Berlinski:

    genferei:

    Four dozen families. Several tape-recorded conversations. A battery of psychological tests. Such science!

    By the way, when does the carousel go away so some editor doesn’t have to spend literally minutes a day choosing unilluminating stock photos.

    Unilluminating? I was groping for a word, but it wasn’t that one. Am I the only one who looked at that photo and couldn’t figure it out? I mean, I doubt the happiest of families are those in which there are two wives.

    Maybe the other one’s an aunt, or a girlfriend?

     Could be that the other male at the table is the one taking the photo…there is another place set at the table. Are we over thinking the photo?

    • #28
    • September 4, 2014, at 9:38 AM PST
    • Like
  29. Casey Inactive

    Essgee: Are we over thinking the photo?

     The left side of the photo is cast in darkness. The right is light and white. Is this photo representing the eternal struggle between good and evil?

    Now we’re overthinking.

    • #29
    • September 4, 2014, at 9:51 AM PST
    • Like
  30. KC Mulville Inactive

    Casey:

    Essgee: Are we over thinking the photo?

    The left side of the photo is cast in darkness. The right is light and white. Is this photo representing the eternal struggle between good and evil?

    Now we’re overthinking.

    Note also that their clothing is one color per item. No stripes or plaids, polka dots or designs. Doesn’t that suggest a family living in deep fear of complexity?

    Sorry … just trying to join in on the over-thinking game …

    • #30
    • September 4, 2014, at 10:18 AM PST
    • Like
  1. 1
  2. 2