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Our children are the stories we tell

“When did you first say, ‘I love you?’ ”my 13-year-old asked my husband and me the other night. “I need to know for a school project.”

She has to write a 40-page autobiography over Spring Break. We’re in it.

We’ve been regurgitating all the old family stories, trying to help get her word count up.

Her parents’ first date at Joe’s Stone Crab. Every detail from the day she was born. (“You were the pinkest baby!”) Why we picked her name. The first time she got in trouble at pre-school for defying her teacher. 

She’s heard these over and over again for years, along with even older tales about great-grandparents and relatives who no longer grace us with their presence but live on through stories of perseverance, loyalty, honesty.

One part myth and two parts ritual, our family narrative has evolved over time, from bedtime stories to dinner conversations to homework assignments. Only now do I realize how important they’ve become.

We all know it’s crucial to read to our children, but most of us don’t realize that sometimes the stories with the biggest impact are our own. 

A growing body of research now supports the idea that a family’s narrative plays an important role in a child’s development. A child’s knowledge of family history has been strongly linked to higher self-control and self-esteem, lower levels of anxiety and fewer behavior problems. Detailed, rich reminiscing with small children has proven to help them later in school to understand complex reading material and get along with others.

Even personal stories without a happy ending are important if they demonstrate how families overcome obstacles and remain strong.

In preadolescents, shared pasts help mold an emerging sense of self, both as an individual and as a member of a unified family. Intergenerational narratives about parents' childhoods help young teenagers have more robust identities, better coping skills and lower rates of depression. Family storytelling can help a child grow into a teen who feels connected to the important people in her life.

Do your kids know where their grandparents grew up? Do they know where you and your spouse went to high school? Do they know how you met? Do they know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do they know the story of their birth?

Those questions and 15 others developed by psychologists at Emory University became part of a 2010 study of four dozen families who had their dinner table conversations taped. Children were quizzed about their families and later given a battery of psychological tests. The overwhelming conclusion: 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. 

The “Do You Know?” scale turned out to be the biggest single predictor of a child’s emotional health and happiness. The researchers found that children who have the most self-confidence have a strong “intergenerational self.” They know they belong to something bigger than themselves.

We read stories and books to our kids so they can imagine a bigger world. We need to tell them stories of their own family so they understand their place in it.

What family story does your child want to hear over and over again? You may be tired of repeating yourself after the 100th time, but it sounds like the 101st may be worth it.