Why kids need to know their family history

Research shows the more children know about their family, the stronger their sense of control over their lives

Published December 13, 2017 5:05PM (EST)


Remembering is a social activity, connecting us to one another as well as to the past.

“This is what memory is for,” said Ira Hyman, a psychologist at Western Washington University. “By sharing memories and having memories in common, it identifies us as having a shared background, as being friends or family members, to make us part of a social group and help us bond as a social group.”

Memories are the glue that keeps our families and communities and our sense of self together, and for children in particular, the sharing of memories, good or bad, is critical to their development. What they know of the past — where they came from and what came before them — and being able to connect themselves to their family’s history helps them navigate their future.

In order to measure the impact of shared autobiographical memories on children, Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush, psychologists at Emory University, created a "Do You Know" test, which asks children questions ranging from “Do you know where your grandparents grew up?” to “Do you know an illness or something terrible that happened in your family?”

Duke and Fivush wanted to measure a child’s resilience based on the memories shared with them by family members. The researchers came to an overwhelming conclusion: The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives.

But what if memories are withheld from a child, specifically ones tied to a history they long to know and experience? That’s Rachel Stephenson’s story.

Rachel grew up in New Orleans and she's now a mother of three and a University Director at the City University of New York. Three days after her fifth birthday, she received startling news.

“My parents were in their early 20s and they wanted to have fun and go out and that's what they had done that night,” Stephenson said. “They’d actually gone to a Mardi Gras party, and I know my mom had dressed up like a Greek goddess. In the middle of the night, I woke up and my grandmother wasn't in bed with me. She emerged from the bathroom fully dressed and she knelt down next to the bed, got really close to my face, and she said, ‘I have to go, your mommy's sick.’ I thought a lot about where my mom was. I imagined her in a sick bed with a thermometer hanging off her lips like a cigarette and that's the image that I held in my head.”

Stephenson's mother wasn't sick. There was no thermometer hanging from her lip like a cigarette. They were details she could hold onto for that night to explain the unexplainable. They were a placeholder for a real memory of what happened.

“The next morning, I remember the front door of my grandmother's apartment opening. It was really bright and two silhouettes floated in, my father and my grandmother. My mother was not with them. My dad sat down, looked at me and he said ‘Your mommy's in heaven now. She's with the angels.’ I don't remember him saying anything after he said that. I remember him sitting still, looking towards the ground, really in his own place and very disconnected from me.”

Rachel’s story is the search for a memory she thought only her father could give her, and the unexpected twist of how she finally found what she wanted. To hear what happened, listen to “Eyes of Another.”

By Terence Mickey

Moth storyteller Terence Mickey is also the creator and host of the "Memory Motel" podcast, which finds the drama in what we want to remember or forget. You can find Terence at @terence_mickey on Twitter  and Instagram at @terence.p.mickey.  

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