"In recent years, psychologists have been paying increased attention to what might be called the bad things happen model of life. Instead of concentrating only on pathology, they are looking to understand its opposite -- how some people suffer tragedy and trauma, and yet go on to do quite well. Their goal is to build this resilience into children. Or as Duke puts it, 'to deal with what's in this life.'
Based on his clinical work, Duke had a sense that kids who knew more about their family background tended to be more resilient. This notion that we get strength from our family ties, from our antecedents, flies in the face of our peculiarly American celebration of self-invention. It is also out of step with the way that we Americans structure our families. Because we count the family as the nuclear, child-rearing unit, we create families whose goal is to self-destruct. We define successful off-springs as those who move out and away. Extended families almost never share homes or businesses, and the leisure time we spend together is often quite limited and formal.
Duke wanted to study whether a child's rootedness in his family contributed to his stability and resilience. So, along with colleagues at Marial, the Emory-based multidisciplinary organization that studies middle-class working families, he looked into how children learned about family lore... at the dinner table.
Beginning in 2001, Duke and his colleagues arranged for the members of forty-two families, each of whom had a child between nine and thirteen years old, to remember and discuss a negative and a positive past event, which were recorded. The families also recorded two dinnertime conversations. In addition, the parents were asked to tell stories about their families. But when they did, all was not sweetness and light. Duke says, 'They told horrible stories about bankruptcies, losing jobs, having to move, accidents; one family talked about a murder.'
But Duke pulls back to consider the context. 'You have to look at where they're telling about it. They're in the safety of their own home. The message is: Terrible things have happened, but we're okay, the family survives. We're thinking it gives the kids grounding, a sense of place, a sense of context.' And he goes on: 'Kids find heroes in their own family.'...
When the group wrote a working paper about their research, they called it Of Ketchup and Kin: Dinnertime Conversations as a Major Source of Family Knowledge, Family Adjustment, and Family Resilience.
The authors, whom I'll call the Ketchup Group, measured the kids in the study according to several standardized psychological tests. They found that the more kids knew about their families, the better they measured up. So those ridiculous stories, as well as the more serious ones, might actually have some value. As the Ketchup Group wrote, 'These give-and-take interactions go beyond influencing memories for the events; they encourage perspective-taking, critical thinking, theory-building, and relationship roles within the family... We propose that family narratives contribute to the current well-being an psychological immunity of its individual members.'
That is, we are our stories. Hearing the family tales again and again over time anchors our sense of who we are, and gives us a feeling of belonging and hope."