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How to Build a Happy Family

Creating strong children and cohesive families through the stories we tell.

This fall, my main squeeze and I are getting married. We’ve been dating for almost four years, and we’ve been engaged for so long people think we are dragging our (probably cold) feet. “What’s the hold up?” our friends ask. “Are you or aren’t you getting married?”

Our hesitation is about the children, of course. My guy lives with his two children in a different county from me and my two children. All four kids are happy in their schools and their communities—not to mention living near their other parents.

My children and I are not planning on moving to Marin; he and his children are not planning on moving to Berkeley. It’s a logistical puzzle with some unique pieces, but I believe at its center is a question nagging many of us today: How do we build a happy family?

That’s the question Bruce Feiler poses in his recent book, The Secrets of Happy Families, and in his wildly popular New York Times article, published earlier this spring.

It turns out that a large part of constructing a happy family is about creating a particular type of narrative about our family history, one that demonstrates that members of our family have been through both good and bad times together, but through it all we’ve stuck together. This is a way of modeling your family’s grit and growth mindset.

Researcher Marshall Duke calls this the “oscillating family narrative,” and he and his colleagues have found that that when kids internalize it, they emerge more confident, with an “intergenerational [sense of] self.” That is a jargony way of saying that kids who know a lot about their family history—the parts that they didn’t experience themselves, but that were passed down to them through stories—feel that they are a part of something much larger than themselves.

When we give kids this sense of being part of something bigger than just themselves, they reap enormous emotional benefits, according to Duke and fellow researchers Amber Lazarus and Robyn Fivush, in a study made famous by Feiler. These benefits include:

-a greater sense of control over their lives;
-higher self-esteem;
-better family functioning;
-greater family cohesiveness;
-lower levels of anxiety;
-fewer behavior problems.

In fact, in Duke, Lazarus, and Fivush’s research, knowledge of family narrative was more strongly associated with children’s emotional well-being than any other factor.

To learn more about the benefits of sharing family stories with your children, including resilience, better adjustment, and improved chances educational outcomes, continue reading this post on my Greater Good blog.