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About six years ago, an outline for a Fifth Sunday lesson was provided to bishops of every ward. Accompanying the outline was a children’s workbook, “The Family: Stories That Bring Us Together,” which is available online or at a Distribution Center for ninety cents. (The photo above is the cover of the booklet.) The lesson referenced an article by Bruce Feiler, a New York Times columnist. Recently I happened onto a TED Talk by Mr. Feiler. This important information resurfaced in my mind, and I thought it might be an appropriate activity for “Come, Follow Me.”
The TED talk began: “So here’s the good news about families. The last 50 years have seen a revolution in what it means to be a family. We have blended families, adopted families, we have nuclear families living in separate houses and divorced families living in the same house. But through it all, the family has grown stronger. Eight in 10 say the family they have today is as strong or stronger than the family they grew up in.”
But there is also bad news: “Nearly everyone is completely overwhelmed by the chaos of family life. Every parent I know, myself included, feels like we’re constantly playing defense. Just when our kids stop teething, they start having tantrums. Just when they stop needing our help taking a bath, they need our help dealing with cyberstalking or bullying.
“And here’s the worst news of all. Our children sense we’re out of control. Ellen Galinsky of the Families and Work Institute asked 1,000 children, ‘If you were granted one wish about your parents, what would it be?’ The parents predicted the kids would say, spending more time with them. They were wrong. The kids’ number one wish? That their parents be less tired and less stressed.”
Mr. Feiler speaks and writes about antifamily forces causing the “dissipation of the family” and how to “counteract those forces.” In his 2013 article, he asked his readers: “What is the secret sauce that holds a family together? What are the ingredients that make some families effective, resilient, and happy?”
The “ingredients,” he wrote, are the whos, whats, whens, wheres, whys, and hows of your family—your family’s story. This secret sauce is available to every family. It has been cooking for generations.
Mr. Feiler has collaborated with Dr. Marshall Duke of Emory University on protecting families and enriching family life for many years. The “secret sauce” idea began brewing when Sara Duke, Dr. Duke’s wife, a psychologist, was working with learning-disabled children. She noticed that the children who knew a lot about their families tended to do better when faced with challenges. She told her husband about her observations, and he told one of his colleagues, Robyn Fivush. Together they developed a twenty-question test to measure how much a child knew about his or her family.
In 2001, after compiling the list, they surveyed children. The research team compared these results to other psychological tests given to the children. The results validated the theory. “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 test became the “Do You Know?” (DYK) scale and “turned out to be the single best predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.”
Drs. Duke and Fivush did not know that a couple of months later on September 11, 2001, terrorists would fly airplanes into the Twin Towers in New York City. After 9/11, they retested the children, and “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,” as small as a sliver or as major as a terrorist attack close to home.
The best aspect of this research is that every parent can duplicate this secret sauce by sharing details about their families. It costs nothing and the return on investment benefits everyone. This simple process gives the child what Dr. Duke calls “an intergenerational self. They know they belong to something bigger than themselves.”
The study also shows that it doesn’t matter what happened in the family because the bottom line is that every family has ups and downs. Good and bad happens to everyone. Whether grandpa was rich or poor, educated or not, made wise or foolish choices, our family came through it. Even when Papa lost his job or the house burned down or Aunt Ethyl got cancer, we got through it. That’s what families do; they get through stuff together. This concept of “family” becomes a person’s core identity.
The family chatting process that builds strong families is not gossipy or spiteful, sarcastic or angry. It does not continue the feud between the Capulets and the Montegues, but it may include the facts that Great-Grandpa got married and divorced four times or that Uncle Edgar spent significant time in the county pokey. It is reality, not a Pollyannaish whitewashing or intergenerational blame.
If the tone of the narrative is negative and the theme is “nothing ever works out for our family,” that is what will continue in the future. If the tone is positive and the theme is “yes, bad things did happen, but we have the ability to bounce back,” that is what will continue in the future. The purpose is to share stories not garbage. These narratives boost unity and pride not because nothing ever went wrong but because our family can work through problems. Our family can do hard things.
Mr. Feiler’s article references how the U.S. military has likewise found that helping recruits feel a sense of unit identity “increases camaraderie and ability to bond more closely with their unit. . . . Until recently, the military taught unit cohesion by ‘dehumanizing’ individuals.” The stereotype of the drill sergeant who bullies cadets does not happen as much anymore. Present training at the Naval Academy has “graduating seniors . . . take incoming freshmen on history-building exercises, like going to the cemetery to pay tribute to the first naval aviator or visiting the original B-1 aircraft on display on campus.”
The scriptures provide similar family history-building narratives that can become part of your family’s collective memory: Eve conversing with a serpent; Moses being chased by the Egyptians; Samuel the Lamanite dodging arrows; the Apostle Paul bringing a young man back to life who fell out of a window; Joseph Smith running through the woods carrying fifty pounds of golden plates. Bible and Book of Mormon family narratives provide good and bad examples of everyday challenges and provide precedent. Opening to the first words in the Book of Mormon begins a family narrative: “I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father; and having seen many afflictions in the course of my days, nevertheless, having been highly favored of the Lord …” (1 Nephi 1:1).
As part of “Come, Follow Me, I suggest you begin your family history-building by using the Do You Know Scale. It is simple. If you print out copies for each family member, even a four-year-old can circle “Yes” or “No.” The test can also be given orally. The “Do You Know Scale” is not a one-time be-done-with-it project. It is the vehicle to create a tradition of casual family conversations about you, your parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, great grandparents. My advice: Share your memories while you have your memory.
Do You Know
1. Yes No Do you know how your parents met?
2. Yes No Do you know where your mother grew up?
3. Yes No Do you know where your father grew up?
4. Yes No Do you know where some of your grandparents grew up?
5. Yes No Do you know where some of your grandparents met?
6. Yes No Do you know where your parents were married?
7. Yes No Do you know what went on when you were being born?
8. Yes No Do you know the source of your name?
9. Yes No Do you know some things about what happened when your brothers or sisters were being born?
10. Yes No Do you know which person in your family you look most like?
11. Yes No Do you know which person in the family you act most like?
12. Yes No Do you know some of the illnesses and injuries that your parents experienced when they were younger?
13. Yes No Do you know some of the lessons that your parents learned from good or bad experiences?
14. Yes No Do you know some things that happened to your mom or dad when they were in school?
15. Yes No Do you know the national background of your family (such as English, German, Russian, etc.)?
16. Yes No Do you know some of the jobs that your parents had when they were young?
17. Yes No Do you know some awards that your parents received when they were young?
18. Yes No Do you know the names of the schools that your mom went to?
19. Yes No Do you know the names of the schools that your dad went to?
20. Yes No Do you know about a relative whose face “froze” in a grumpy position because he or she did not smile enough?
There is a loose end dangling out there. Can any of this help those chronically tired and stressed parents mentioned above? Can casual conversations help those 1,000 children who are worried about their parents? Please consider that perhaps, just perhaps, by using this DYK scale as a beginning point, a new tradition of informal, casual, relaxed conversations can relieve some pressure. Who knows what healthy and enjoyable bonds might evolve?