Stories as scaffolding


We tell a story in my family about when my siblings and I started to finish the sentences of docents at historic sites throughout the Northeast. By the time we were all in elementary school, we could recite many a spiel given by eager interpreters of colonial objects and lifestyles of early America's rich and famous. At one site -- perhaps famed Revolutionary War general Philip J. Schuyler's home in Albany, N.Y. -- our chipper guide made the stale joke about the metal bed warmer perhaps being a colonial popcorn maker. My sister first displayed her jaundiced eye and then launched her deadpan unequivocal response: "Nope. It's a bed warmer." Looking back, I imagine that poor museum worker -- dressed in period costume no doubt and feeling decidedly vulnerable in her silly dust cap -- sizing up my family and thinking, "Who are these people?"

While other families took vacations to the beach or Disneyland, my family only ventured to holiday "destinations" at which we could "learn something." After visiting colonial English and Dutch homes of prominent individuals all along the Eastern Seaboard, we branched out to Revolutionary and Civil War battlefields and monuments, then to important whaling and fishing communities, all the while stopping at each and every historic marker and statue along the way. Although my parents claim I suffered from terrible motion sickness in the car, I think that most of the problem was the constant stopping and starting as we sought to edify ourselves at each roadside notice of important local events: "James Fenimore Cooper may have stayed at an inn that possibly once stood on this spot. It is believed that he might have penned a few pages of his 'Leatherstocking Tales' here."

Although we vigorously advocated for more "normal" getaways involving sand, sun and amusement parks, there's no denying that these educational jaunts provided us with a lot of great comic material and undoubtedly shaped our interests and our sense of aesthetics.

Bestselling author and New York Times columnist Bruce Feiler asserts that these experiences and family stories also provided me and my siblings with tools that made us more resilient. Feiler's curiosity about what makes some children more equipped to overcome adversity than others led him to research by psychologist Marshall Duke at Emory University. Duke's work indicated that one key to strengthening families is to help your children develop a strong family narrative.

Duke's wife, Sara -- a psychologist who works with children with learning disabilities -- noticed an interesting phenomenon in her practice. She explains, "The ones who know a lot about their families tend to do better when they face challenges." Intrigued by Sara's hypothesis, Duke teamed up with fellow Emory psychology professor Robyn Fivush to test it out. Eventually, Fivush and Duke developed a simple measure to determine a child's sense of family. They called the 20 question scale the "Do You Know?" quiz. Children were asked an assortment of questions about their families and their own personal histories: Do you know your birth story? Do you know where your parents met? Do you know of an illness or something really bad that happened to your family?

In the summer of 2001, when they interviewed families about these questions and then compared the children's answers to their results from a battery of psychological tests, the correlation was astonishing: Children who knew more about their own personal history and their family's narrative had a much stronger sense of control over their lives and had higher self-esteem.

Their theory was unexpectedly further tested following the September 11th terrorist attacks. Fivush and Duke went back to the same families and re-interviewed the children in the midst of this national trauma. "Once again," Duke explains, "the ones who knew more about their families proved to be more resilient, meaning they could moderate the effects of stress." These children have an understanding of their family's "unifying narrative" and this provides them with what Duke and Fivush refer to as "an intergenerational self" -- a strong sense that they are part of something larger than themselves.

Although constructing a strong family narrative with your children is crucial, the type of storyline you create is also important. Some families have an ascending family story: We used to be so poor but now we have made it. Other families have a descending one: Your great grandfather made a lot of money selling real estate. But then he lost it all. We've struggled ever since. But the narrative that best creates a sense of family resilience and spirit is one that fluidly fluctuates between the two: We've had our ups and downs, good times and bad times, but through it all we support each other.

Like my own family's outings to view an endless string of early American bed warmers, hokey family trips and traditions seem to be some of the inexplicable glue that binds kin together. The amusing anecdotes about my siblings correcting the museum guides become much more than droll recollections: They themselves became part of our family and further enhanced our family's identity as a unit that is able to overcome adversity.

I'm still unpacking from last week's trip to Mystic Seaport where we dragged the kids to see interpreters hauling up the yard on an 1880s three-masted square rigged ship as salty sea chanteys rang out across the water. No doubt my own kids will soon develop practiced eye-rolling as eager docents interrogate them about rigging, bowsprits and capstans. I imagine I will smile when that happens, knowing that together we've created memories that fastened us tight together like the hundreds of strands that make up the sturdy bowline.

Rebecca Balint writes about history, education and culture. She welcomes your comments at Read her blog at


If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.

Powered by Creative Circle Media Solutions