Over the next week, tens of millions of people will do something so familiar it's easy to forget how radical it is: They will commemorate the worst moments of their past. For Jews, the occasion is Passover, in which they relive their four centuries of slavery in Egypt. For Christians, the occasion is Easter, in which they painstakingly mark the trial and crucifixion of Jesus.
Sure, both stories come around to happier endings. The Bible says the Israelites ultimately escape slavery, and Jesus is ultimately resurrected. But the larger question is still worth considering: What rightful people put their most ignoble days at the heart of their identity?
The answer: a people that wants to survive.
I spent the last few years trying to figure out the secret sauce that keeps families strong, effective and resilient. I talked to cutting-edge scholars, innovative brain researchers, leaders of business, sports and religion, as well as countless everyday moms and dads, who, like me, were struggling so mightily to get through every day we had no time to ask the larger question of how to teach our children values. In effect I was trying to find out: What do happy families do right, and what can I learn from them to make my family happier?
The good news is there is lots of knowledge these days to answer that question. I lay out what I found in "The Secrets of Happy Families," a playbook for contemporary families, covering everything from rethinking mornings to revamping dinner to rejuvenating date night. But of all the counterintuitive ideas I encountered, one, above all, changed my view of parenting -- and of religion.
The most successful families embrace and elevate their family history, particularly their failures, setbacks and other missteps. In 2001, two researchers at Emory, Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush, gave 400 children a simple test about their family's past. Do you know where your grandparents were born? Do you know where your parents went to high school? Do you know an aunt or other relative who had an illness they overcame. They also gave them a battery of other psychological tests.
The children who knew more about their family's history had higher self-esteem, a stronger sense that they controlled their lives, and a deeper belief that their family functioned well. The "Do You Know?" scale, as the researchers dubbed it, turned out to be the best single predictor of children's emotional health and happiness.
"We were blown away," Dr. Duke told me.
Two months later came Sept. 11. Though the families lived far away, all the children had experienced the same anguish in the same way. The researchers reassessed the children. "Once again," Dr. Duke said, "the ones who knew more about their families proved to be more resilient, meaning they could moderate the effects of stress."
Why does being aware of your family's history help children in times of stress?
"The answers have to do with a child's sense of being part of a larger family," Dr. Duke said. Psychologists have found that every family has a unifying narrative, and they tend to take one of three shapes. First, the ascending narrative: We had nothing; we worked hard; now we have a lot. Second, the descending narrative: We had a lot; then there was a recession, a war, a storm; we lost it all. Third, an oscillating narrative: We worked hard; we achieved some success; but then your grandfather lost his job; we rallied as a family and came back; but then your aunt developed a drinking problem.
Dr. Duke said that children who have the most self-confidence have what he and Dr. Fivush call a strong "intergenerational self." They know they belong to something bigger than themselves.
And that's where religion comes in. One of the core ideas of the Bible is that meaning can be found in history. The sheer act of telling and retelling stories helps us to understand God's role in the world as well as our own position in a long line of ancestors who have wrestled with similar issues to the ones we wrestle with every day. So when Jews relive the Passover seder as their ancestors have done for thousands of years or Christians recreate the final steps of Jesus as their forebears have done for centuries, we are directly extending a line from our children to their past.
And the fact that those traditions include moments of hardship makes them even more memorable. As Dr. Duke has found, the best single thing you can do for your children is create, refine and retell the story of your family's positive moments and your ability to bounce back from the difficult ones. That will give your children confidence that when they encounter hurdles, they can push through as well. The fact that Passover and Easter elevate suffering to a core part of the story helps those celebrating to draw closer to one another and to better prepare themselves for their own ups and downs.
The bottom line: If you want a happier family, bring those skeletons out of the closet. Celebrate your family's bleakest moments and how your relatives overcame them. In doing so, you will encounter darkness, but you'll give your children the confidence that they, too, shall overcome.
Bruce Feiler is the author of six New York Times bestsellers, including Walking the Bible and Abraham. This piece is adapted from his latest book, The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More, which was just published.
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