I’ve decided to rethink bedtime stories. Maybe you should too. It turns out, those stories can become a weapon of mass protection for our children. I don’t know about you, but I feel helpless sometimes — like a sideline spectator — watching my children navigate life’s challenges. And I’m just talking about schoolyard bullies and lost toys for my young children. As they get older, I know they will face more formidable foes, like the increasingly common mental ailments of depression and anxiety.
Sadly, I have seen dozens and dozens and dozens of our children in the hospital after they have felt sad enough to make an attempt on their lives. I’ve seen even more in my clinic where the clouds of depression and anxiety are just starting to disrupt their routines.
I’ve wondered if the increase has something to do with better awareness and decreased stigma. If so, that is a wonderful thing! That means kids who used to pretend everything was fine are now getting the emotional help they need! But I’m afraid that can’t explain away the whole increase.
It seems probable and even likely that the way our children are immersed in social media plays at least some roll. Every picture and post is a test of their popularity, their beauty, their coolness. How many likes did I get? As they scan their feeds, they are inundated with falsehoods, inaccuracies, and “fake news.” They see peers who seem impossibly happy having endless amounts of fun. The teenage mind is simply not equipped to discern clearly between what is real and what is filtered. Add on the complexities of hormonal swings and the pressures of school and work and extracurricular activities and you have a set-up for emotional instability. The teenage years are a set-up anyway! Social media just makes it impossible to escape.
So how do you arm your children against this storm? How can you fortify them emotionally? How can you make things that are true more obvious and clear? What does story time have anything to do with it?
In 2008, two researchers put together 20 questions that they thought might be able to predict how emotionally healthy children are. The questions ranged from “Do you know how your parents met?” and “Do you know the source of your name?” to “Do you know where some of your grandparents grew up?” It was sort of a mini pop quiz on family history. The number of answers a child knew became their score.
What they found was an incredible clue for us as parents. Kids with higher scores had “higher levels of self-esteem, . . . a belief in one’s own capacity to control what happens to him or her, better family functioning, lower levels of anxiety, fewer behavioral problems, and better [resilience].”1
OK. Give me that list of 20 questions. I’m gonna make a set of laminated flash cards for every kid I know!
But knowing a list of random family history facts wasn’t the point at all.
The real power came from HOW those kids knew random family history facts: “The information was typically passed during family dinners, family vacations, family holidays, and the like.” Those traditions helped the children develop a “strong sense of what we have called the intergenerational self.”1 [emphasis added].
In other words, families that make family history a part of their culture and traditions (help their children create an intergenerational self) are families that cultivate healthier, happier, more resilient children. The intergenerational self could have the power to make a child’s cyber-self irrelevant.
That is a very cool finding to hear from a scientific paper. Although, I have to admit, it is not that surprising to me at all.
God himself has frequently encouraged us to develop a strong “intergenerational self.” Isaiah says, “Look unto the rock from whence ye are hewn, and to the hole of the pit from whence ye are digged. Look unto Abraham, your father, and unto Sarah that bare you.”2 He frequently implores us: “Know ye that ye are of the House of Israel.”3 God knows of the strength that comes from belonging to strong families, whether it be God’s family, your adopted family, or your genetic family. Henry B. Eyring, speaking about children who “do” family history, said the following in April of this year: “[Family history] has increased the influence of the Spirit in their lives and decreased the influence of the adversary. It has helped them feel closer to their families and closer to the Lord Jesus Christ.”4
So how do you make family history a part of your culture and traditions? How do you develop this intergenerational self in yourself and your children? I can tell you one thing for sure, I’m not an expert. I have a few ideas, but I would definitely appreciate your ideas as well.
As I’ve pondered, I have come to realize that my family has given me the gift of an intergenerational self. When I worked in the yard with my dad or my grandpa and saw their relentless motors, I came to know that “we work hard.” When my dad told me stories about my mom in high school, I came to know that “we are kind and loving to everyone.” When my grandpa and dad told me stories about my dad as a missionary, I came to know that “we share our testimonies and have great faith that others will believe our words.” When my grandma told me about my grandpa’s motto to “fix the problem, not the blame,” I came to know that “we care about solutions AND people.” When I read my dad’s life history and he explained troubles he had in high school, I came to know that “we are not perfect and we always repent.” So much of who I am is really who they are.
I’ve had one idea. My kids LOVE to draw. I like to draw with them and I’m always wondering what to color. I want to start to draw scenes from my childhood and when they ask what it is, I get to tell them a story about my life.
I also remember two of my favorite vacations of all time. We traveled to Memphis where my dad grew up. We drove to his high school and his old home and ate at a favorite restaurant. I saw the infamous water tower where he was caught by the police and taken to jail for trespassing to put up a school banner. It was like traveling in time. The next year, I visited Chagrin Falls, Ohio, where my mother grew up. It was enchanting. I was driving through the streets, talking on the phone excitedly with my grandmother about fountains, parks, and store fronts. I felt connected and a part of their childhoods.
In the same line of thinking, I know a family friend and her husband who will take their children on a journey through a little history of their early romantic relationship. They visit the place they met, their first date, where they got engaged, etc. Physical locations make stories come to life.
Some of the most worthwhile stories to share are stories of failure, heartache, and disappointment. Don’t shy away from the difficult or embarrassing moments of your lives. I cannot think of a more important attribute for my children to incorporate into their intergenerational self than that of perseverance, penitence, and humble faith in the face of hard things. “That our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins.”5
So, we need to be true storytellers. We need to encapsulate moments and attributes and package them in the stories of our lives, and our parents’ lives, and our grandparents’ lives, and our great grandparents’ lives. And then tell them to our children. And write them down for our children to read. And show them what real life feels like.
I really do know and feel that we are all part of God’s family. He wants us to feel connected to Him and implores us to remember who we are! He also wants us to be part of strong family chains – definitely imperfect, but strong.
How do you build your children’s intergenerational selves?
- Duke, M.P., Lazarus, A., & Fivush, R. (2008). Knowledge of family history as a clinically useful index of psychological well-being and prognosis: A brief report. Psychotherapy Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 45, 268-272.
- 2 Nephi 8:1-2
- Mormon 7:2
- Henry B. Eyring, “Gathering the Family of God”, April 2017 General Conference.
- 2 Nephi 25:26
Mitch Peterson is a husband to an amazing wife and father to three great kids. He loves to take care of children as a pediatrician at Families First Pediatrics (ffpeds.com) in Utah. He keeps up an Instagram account that addresses many common questions about childrens’ health (@doctor.peterson).