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The Sense of Self

By Daniel Hubbard | March 3, 2013

I’ve just run across a study done a few years ago. It touches on thoughts about family history and our sense of self that I have had for a long time, but goes beyond them and shows how family stories affect a child’s development. In 2005 scientists at Emory University’s Center on Myth and Ritual in American Life, studied family conversations and how they affect children.  What caught my attention is that if children who were about ten years old heard family stories it seemed to actually change them.

Family history is often thought of as just another pastime, another hobby. I’ve always felt that it was more than that. Besides being a fun intellectual exercise, it gets at something about us, our sense of who we are, our sense of meaning, even about about what it is to be human. What these scientists learned goes part way to proving those points. They studied children between the ages of 9 and 12 and those children’s exposure to family stories told by parents and grandparents. When they checked those children a few years later, they found that those children who heard stories about their families from the time before they were born were more secure, had a stronger sense of self and better self-esteem.

The researchers refer to the development of an “intergenerational self.” I like that term. It is something that I have felt for a long time without having a name for it. They studied children exposed to stories of parents’ and grandparents’ lives. I wonder about the intergenerational self in children who hear stories that stretch even farther back in time to immigrants and pioneers. If they hear enough to really connect from one set of characters to another and to themselves I would think that must add even more to that sense of self across time.


I’ll end this post with some quotes from these studies. There is no need for me to rephrase what was well said from the beginning.

“The power of the family stories and the family history is really remarkable,” Fivush says. “There seems to be something that’s particularly important about children knowing where they came from in a larger sense and having a sense of family history and a family place.”

“We have found, for example, that the more children know about things like where their grandparents grew up and what jobs they had, the higher the children’s self-esteem, the lower their levels of behavioral disturbance, and the more they believe that they can affect the world around them.”

“…the sense of self through time is expanded in early adolescence to include a personal history defined by family stories, and how family reminiscing leads to an intergenerational self, a self that is defined as much by one’s place in a familial history as a personal past.”

“These various kinds of family stories create meaning beyond the individual, to include a sense of self through historical time and in relation to family members…”

“Part of who I am is defined by the experiences of my parents, and their parents before them.”

“…stories outside of the children’s experience, including stories of the parents before the children were born, both as children in their own families of origin and as adults before forming this family.  These kinds of stories provide an historical context for children, informing them of how they fit into a larger life framework.”

“…family stories are the way in which we connect across generations to create family history and family identity.  Through the telling and sharing of family history stories, children develop a sense of self as connected to previous generations.  By anchoring oneself in family history, one has a sense of place and security that may facilitate self-confidence and self-competence.”

“…preadolescent’s knowledge of their family history was strongly related to multiple aspects of their well-being and sense of self.”

“Preadolescents who develop a sense of self as embedded in both a shared and intergenerational family context show higher levels of self-understanding and well-being compared to their peers who do not know their family history as well, suggesting that the development of an intergenerational self, a self embedded in a larger familial history, may be a resilience factor as children approach adolescence.”

“What is remarkable is that these family stories become part of our own personal self-definition.  How we take on the stories of others, and use them to create our own sense of self, is an astonishing phenomenon still in need of a great deal of explication.  Children who know their family history, who have shared in these stories, develop a sense of self embedded in a larger familial and intergenerational context, and this sense of self provides strength and security. ”

“Family stories, stories about shared family experiences, about the parents’ lives before the children were born, what parents’ childhoods were like, and stories of previous generations, may be particularly frequent. These vari- ous kinds of family stories create meaning beyond the individual, to include a sense of self through historical time and in relation to family members. . . . Through the telling and sharing of family history stories, chil- dren develop a sense of self as connected to previous generations. By anchoring oneself in family history, one has a sense of place and security that may facilitate self-confi- dence and self-competence.”

” Raising a Resilient Child: Tips for Parents

  1. Share family meals together as often as possible.
  2. Tell your child stories about their family history, such as where their grandparents grew up, how they met, what their parents did for a living.
  3. Talk openly with your child about positive, and negative, events.
  4. Don’t avoid talking to your child about negative events. Bad things happen. Don’t pretend they don’t.
  5. Help your child see that people can overcome obstacles.
  6. Find opportunities to be together as a family, and talk together when these moments occur.”

You can find the sources of these quotes at The intergenerational self: Subjective perspective and family history (downloads a Word document), An “Intergenerational Sense of Self” is a Source of Strength for Kids and Family Members, and Family Meals, Stories Boost Child Confidence, Say Emory Researchers.

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Topics: Genealogy, Myth and Meaning | 2 Comments »

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2 Responses to “The Sense of Self”

  1. Knowing your place | Enduring to the end Says:
    September 5th, 2013 at 3:50 pm

    […] read an interesting blog post here on the link between family history and children’s self-esteem. A study done by […]

  2. S is for Story | Making Life an Art Says:
    April 22nd, 2014 at 10:19 am

    […] to be human. (For the full quote, and  links to the study see Daniel Hubbard’s blog post on Personal Past Meditations- a Genealogical […]