by David N Hafter, MFT
This column is about the passing along of your family’s history to the next generation, so if this amounts to preaching to a choir of which you are already a member, I ask your forgiveness. You already know and have enjoyed the benefits of a shared history.
In my years of providing family therapy, I have often noticed how kids do not know much about their parent’s histories let alone that of the generations preceding them. There is no single reason for this. Families do not necessarily have dinner together regularly and when they do, the topic of family history simply may not arise. I don’t mean to sound critical or judgmental here; schedules for both parents and kids are tight, current priorities and distractions are varied and many.
That said, knowing your family history for at least a few generations back gives you context for the present. For kids, it helps them to see their parents as real people with personal histories that impact how they see, experience and explain the world. This only happens when kids hear stories about their parents, grandparents and even generations further back where they have a chance to project themselves into those stories, imagining themselves in those situations and times. Having done that, they can look at (or think about) the real people who actually lived those stories and see them in a different light.
Kids often get stuck seeing their parents and grandparents more or less within the role they play for them – as opposed to the real people they are. This is normal for little ones since we, by necessity, tend to put them in the middle of the family universe. They need our near constant monitoring to stay safe, healthy and out of trouble. It is normal, then, for young kids to have an “It’s all about me” point of view. As they grow into teens and mature adults, that narrow and unrealistic world view has to evolve into something more inclusive of other’s needs and desires. Telling family stories helps with that process of maturation.
Now that we are in the holiday season, there will be, for most families, at least a few family dinners in the coming weeks where an important, and free, gift can be handed down from one generation to the next: the gift of family history and with it, a context for how that family operates in the world.
Family histories are filled with triumphs and tragedies, good and bad times. The individual stories are immersed in the historical times in which they took place, so when the stories are told, the shared history comes alive. Explanations for attitudes and behaviors starting with, “Well, back in those days…” give kids a context outside of their personal experiences. Kids are often surprised to realize that the modern conveniences they take for granted, such as personal computers and cell phones, only came about very recently. When they imagine themselves within a story about a grandparent, for example, they have to remove such things as the ability to call for help, or a ride, wherever you are, or to document a funny situation with a cell phone picture or video.
Sometimes family members do not know the painful stories of the generations past, because they were never shared; the thinking being that keeping them quiet spares the next generation from experiencing that pain or knowing how unfair the world can be; or perhaps, revisiting those memories is too painful for the holder of the memories. We may just “keep on keeping on,” as Dylan sang in Tangled Up in Blue. Again, the best of intentions don’t always give the best of outcomes. Our past influences how we experience the present and prepare for the future. A real family history covers both the good and bad times and a relative with no attached past is like a stick figure drawing compared to a fleshed out painting.
It is well documented that survivors of painful events – who choose to keep their memories to themselves – may find that their own children experience anxieties and depressions unconnected to their personal histories; it is as though they, too, experienced their parents’ painful events. Somehow, the feelings connected to those untold stories nonetheless get transferred from one generation to the next. Without context, the message received by the next generation is free floating anxiety: “The world is an unsafe place,” for example, or “You can’t trust anybody.” Having the context can give the next generation a way of making sense of their family’s particular ways of viewing the world and perhaps allow them to see that the odd feelings they experience may not always be about them and their own experiences.
By the way, this does not mean that a family holiday dinner must be the format for a litany of tragic tales. In the context of telling your kids stories about your upbringing, or that of great grandma, one need not go into all the details in order to give subsequent attitudes and behaviors some reasonable context. Questions that don’t fit well at the dinner table may still deserve some time to be told – but later. How do you get these conversations going? It’s not as hard as it sounds. The questions that sound innocuous can lead to very interesting discussions: If your parents are at the table, you can ask, “Dad, will you tell the kids how you and mom met?” This is a nice opening to get your kids curious about the life and times of their grandparents.
Follow up questions like, ”What were the dating rules like back then?” or “What was your first car and how did you get the money to buy it?” can spur very interesting conversations both about how times have changed and how some things never change. Young people of every generation desire as much personal freedom as they can get while dealing with their frustrations at the rules and limitations placed on them by their family, or their community. If the older family members at the table ask similar questions of the young ones, they will gain some perspective on what it is like to be young today.
We all hear jokes about how goofy and awkward it can be to have the family around the holiday table. Most of the jokes are caricatures of reality but there is enough truth in them that the comedians get a laugh saying the same type of thing every year. Let’s try making this year’s dinners a chance to come together in a different sort of way.
David N Hafter, MFT is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist living in Davis.