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Marshall P. Duke

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Prime Time for Families

Posted: 11/09/10 04:53 PM ET

The chill in the morning air, combined with the early evening darkness signaling the end of daylight savings time and the excess Halloween candy strewn around our house tell me that we are entering my favorite time of the year. Not unusual you might say, Thanksgiving and all of the other wonderful fall and winter holidays -- Diwali, Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa -- are pretty much everyone's favorite times of year. But for someone like me, someone who has spent several decades studying the relationships among family stories and family rituals and psychological well-being and resilience in children, this time of year is prime time! Why? Because research has shown that the holidays are the richest opportunities we have for telling family stories and for performing family rituals and that these family experiences are master keys to making our families, our children and ourselves stronger and more resilient.

The place that I have spent the past ten years studying stories that families tell and rituals they follow is Emory University's Sloan Center for the Study of Myth and Ritual in American Life (MARIAL). Along with my colleague, developmental psychologist Robyn Fivush, I have been part of a project in which we have studied almost 150 families and examined the ways that they deal with the incredible centrifugal forces that now affect American families. Ooops -- sorry -- I just fell into academic mode, but most of us remember high school physics (I hope), where we learned that centrifugal forces are things that cause things to fly outward like when our dogs shake water off themselves and onto us or our furniture. The opposite effect, centripetal force, holds things together or pushes them back towards their center like a contracting rubber band returning a balloon that we have just punched away. I hope it is easy to see why these concepts are very valuable in thinking about modern family life. In so many ways we find ourselves in a state of balance between these two forces, being neither able nor willing (wisely) to allow ourselves to gravitate toward either extreme. But we do know several things from our study of our 150 families -- statistically speaking, families that extend real effort to counteract the forces that pull them apart have better adjusted children children who tend to do better in school and to avoid drugs and delinquency, better functioning families, kids with higher levels of self confidence and with stronger senses of who they are.

So how can families deal with the things in life -- jobs, school, carpools, soccer, gymnastics, religious school, fast food restaurants, etc. that pull us away from hearth and home when we know deep in our hearts that the very bedrock of stability and security in this life is the family (in any one of its myriad forms)? Put another way, how can we as families produce centripetal forces that allow us to maintain a feeling of stability and constancy in a world that is anything but?

In future blogs, I'll be addressing a number of centripetal forces -- ways that families maintain themselves and their members under the circumstances of modern life, and not to worry, my answers may not be what you'd expect from an old professor of psychology, grandfather of 8, ritualist extraordinaire. I am not a Luddite. However, neither am I someone who throws out bathwater without checking to be sure the baby is not in there somewhere. It turns out there are many things that families can do to counteract the centrifugal forces of modern life. There are some pretty easy "centripetal" prescriptions -- all based on research at the MARIAL center and elsewhere -- that any family can apply -- prescriptions that can make for psychologically healthy and resilient kids and parents and well-functioning families. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, Diwali and any other reason for the exercise of rituals, traditions, ceremonies and storytelling. Family reunions that take place once a decade. Or once a year like family vacations, birthdays and anniversaries. Or the single most powerful and readily available daily family reunion and the title and topic of Laurie David's new book ... The Family Dinner. In all these rituals, we researchers have found, lie the sources of the sorts of psychological strength that we all seek in raising our children and living our lives. In a life and world filled with inconsistency and instability, these wonderful events can be the providers of the very opposite. And we need not wait or hope for them just to come around; we can actually make them happen. But there are some times of year when making them happen is easier and their impact is more powerful. Prime Time! The holidays. Thanksgiving dinner. Christmas hams. Potato latkes. Chicken and sausage gumbo. Gulab jamun and jilebis. Coming soon to a home near you! Plan for them next time you sit down for a family dinner. It's a good time to talk.