In his recent book, The Secrets of Happy Families, Bruce Feiler honored my colleague, Robyn Fivush, and I by reporting our two decades of research on the health-giving effects of family stories. In a nutshell, what we have found is that the more children know about their multi-generational family background the more well-adjusted they are, the better they tend to do in school, the less likely they are to become involved in drugs and other manifestations of poor judgment, the better their families function and the more resilient they are. If our email correspondence is any indicator, many people are incorporating our suggestions that children need to hear the stories of their family -- both the positive and the negative -- into family gatherings such as Thanksgiving, anniversaries, birthdays and the like. Many have written and asked us about the 20 question "Do You Know" scale that we used in our work and we have made it available here on Huffington Post.
To be sure, Thanksgiving, Christmas, summer vacations and other gatherings are really good times to tell family stories. However, in the coming weeks, millions of people across the world will be telling the grandest stories of all -- the story of Passover -- recounting the exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt -- and, during the Holy Week leading up to Easter, the story of the suffering and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Clearly, these are much more than individual family stories. These are grand stories, but in ways similar to how the stories of individual families bind them to one another and provide a sense of history and connectedness, so too do these stories bind together huge segments of humankind.
If the grand Passover and Easter stories do differ from the intergenerational stories of individual families, the difference is not one of kind but of magnitude. To be specific, if we look carefully, we will find that in every individual family there will be a "Passover" story in which, for any of multiple reasons, some ancestors leave the place they have been living for generations and set out in search of a promised land. It has been said, in fact, that one of most important sources of the American national identity of self-reliance and "can-do" thinking stems from the fact that almost all of us descend from people who left somewhere else and set out into the unknown driven by the faith that a better place existed.
As with the "Passover" story, there is also likely to be in most families a smaller version of an "Easter" story in which someone, in a time of turmoil and need, appeared to lead the family in a better direction with the result being that that person is held in reverence and admiration across the generations. I am not suggesting here another Messiah, but more like a savior with a small "s." An example would be a person who took in and helped a family when they were in trouble or who gave a grandfather a job when it was sorely needed or who interceded in a way that made a huge difference for generations to come.
Here is what I am suggesting: This year, at both Passover seders and Easter family gatherings, in addition to telling the grand Passover and Easter stories, find some time to tell the parallel individual family stories. Tell the "Passover" stories of the family's ancestors -- grandparents, aunts, uncles -- who, for examples, left European oppression to come to America, or the ones who left Ireland due to the famine there, or the ones who left Sicily, or Vietnam, or China, or India or any of the other myriad places from which our American ancestors carried out their own Exodus. Tell "Easter" stories of how someone came into the family's life and transformed them for the better whether these people were religious leaders, politicians, shop-keepers, teachers or strangers. (I apologize for not being able to add Islamic or other religious parallels here due to lack of sufficient knowledge but I will wager that there are parallels and my suggestions can and should apply.)
Our research here at Emory University and that of our colleagues elsewhere tells us that the individual family stories that we will tell at our family gatherings will do good. They will connect us and our children to real heroes whom we can admire and emulate. To be sure, we should admire and seek to emulate Moses or Jesus or Mohammed, but we can also feel the same admiration and inspiration towards Grandpa Jack or Uncle Sean or Cousin Shao or Grandma Etasha. These and those like them can be the heroes of each family's own "Passover" and "Easter" stories. Tell the grand stories, to be sure, but please know, that in children's minds a "small" story of resolve, faith and redemption can become quite grand when they realize that it really happened to someone in the multigenerational family of which they are a part.