Strengthening Children Through Family History: Bruce Feiler’s Tips from RootsTech 2016
At the end of Bruce Feiler’s inspirational keynote talk at RootsTech in February, he encouraged listeners to do four things:
1 – “Find a way to connect your family story with the oldest stories ever told.”
2 – “Find a way to not just talk about the green and bountiful moments, but about the moments in exile, in desert, in pain.”
3 – “Find a way to take your passion for family history, and pass it on to subsequent generations and especially to our children – who need it in order to believe that they can have a life of passion, that they can control, with dignity, happiness, and togetherness.”
4 – “Every now and then, find a friend, take a walk, and share a story.”
I was particularly inspired by his third suggestion, to pass on our enthusiasm for family history to the next generation. Feiler shared several ideas for doing this – preserving your own legacy, telling small stories with passion, talking about what it means to be a family, and sharing memories every day.
What is the best way to share family history with children? As I’ve been researching this question, I compiled a web index of all the articles and blog posts I could find that share ideas for family history with children and teens:
A collection of over 270 articles and blog posts with ideas for teaching, doing, and sharing family history with children and teens. To contribute more ideas to this list or guest post on Family Locket about your ideas for children and teens, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here are some of the ideas Bruce Feiler gave in his RoostTech talk for sharing family history with children:
Preserve your own legacy
In 2008, Feiler found out he had cancer in his leg. Fearing that he wouldn’t be there for his young daughters as they grew up, he had an idea. He would, as he put it, “reach out to men from all parts of my life and ask if they could be part of my children’s life. They could be my voice – the council of dads. What happened to me in this moment of pain was that I wanted to record who I was, write down what had happened to me, and tell my story.”
During the next exhausting year of chemo and surgery, he set out to write his story. He interviewed friends in the council of dads about lessons they could share with Feiler’s children. He also interviewed his father, learned about life of his grandfather and other father figures that he hadn’t known.
Tell a small story with passion
As he researched his family history for the council of dads project, he found that one of his grandfathers had only left behind a collection of epitaphs that he gathered as a hobby. Even this small discovery was meaningful to Feiler. He was able to connect with his grandfather in a small way.
Feiler said, “What I learned is that when you talk to people about family history, you often hear: it’s too difficult, I don’t have time, the courthouse burned down, records got wet, I don’t have money to go back to where I came from, I can’t get the whole thing … The point is, you don’t need the whole picture! Sometimes the best way to tell a big story is to tell a small story and to tell it in depth and to tell it in a way that you can find passion in.”
Faced with death, Feiler found that leaving a legacy of family and personal stories for his children was a priority. He learned about the meaning and connection that comes through family history.
Tell stories that pass “the campfire test”
Take the Bible, for example: when Feiler was in Israel researching for his next book, he met an archaeologist who said there were 20 million stories in the ancient world and only 2 dozen made it into the Bible. Think about how good those have to be! To see if your stories pass the campfire test, ask, “does this story have the emotion, the passion, the pain in order to endure?”
Find out about and tell the stories that children will remember – that they will want to repeat around the campfire someday with their own families.
Create a family mission statement
Feiler asked, “If I went to the people in your family – your children, grandchildren, cousin, aunts, uncles, brothers – and said, ‘What values are most important to you?’ Could the people in your family tell me?”
He went on, “Are we so involved in the facts and figures of family history that we forget to pull out a theme? And draw out the lessons we want others around us to learn? My wife would say that of all the dozens of ideas that we tried, this was in the top three most meaningful ideas that we did. We did the equivalent of a “corporate retreat” – we put on pajamas, and made popcorn from scratch which burned the first time around, then asked questions:
- What do you like best about our family?
- What do you miss when you’re gone from our family?
- When others come over, what do you show them?
“One of my kids got into a spat at school and my wife and I were called into the principal’s office. We brought the children into our office and my wife wasn’t sure what to do. This list, our family mission statement, was on the wall. She said to my daughter, “What from our family mission statement applies to this? Our daughter looked at the list and said, “We bring people together.” Their mission statement helped them have a meaningful conversation in an otherwise difficult moment.
Feiler said, “One thing we learn from positive psychology is that if you want to make yourself a better person, you have to identify what the psychologists call ‘your best possible self.’ Creating a family mission statement does this. It identifies our best possible family self. We ask, “Who do we want to be as a family?” Then we draw lessons from our family and try to live up to them.”
What lessons can you draw from your family members? What stories do you tell and retell about grandparents and great grandparents that help guide you? I wrote about this idea in Family Stories and Mission Statements.
We have been working on our family goal to create a mission statement. With a 5 and 2 year old, our conversations are relatively simple. We asked our five year old the first question Feiler suggested – “What do you like about our family?” His answers surprised us. “I like how grandma goes downstairs to the toy closet with me to get out toys.” “I like when I get to play with my uncles.” “I like doing family night together.”
Since our two year old wasn’t sure what the question meant, we asked each other, “what do you think Alice’s favorite things about our family are?” When “dancing with Daddy” came up, Alice immediately got down from her chair to do just that. We turned on some music and had to abandon our list making for the night for a family dance party. We played follow the leader to each others’ silliest dance moves. It was a poignant reminder to me of what our children love most – our spontaneity, our silliness, our time. If creating a family mission statement and talking about our family always turns into creating happy memories, I want to do it more often.
Feiler said that creating a family mission statement can make family history a daily occurrence. I think this is especially true as we conscientiously incorporate activities that go along with our “best family self” into our routines; and as we display our family mission statement in a place where it reminds us of the ancestors who inspire us and the family narrative we inherit from them.
Storytelling Games: Autobiography Night
Can telling stories build self-esteem? Feiler shared research that telling positive stories about yourself increases your ability to perform well on a difficult task.
Feiler said that beginning at age 5, children can tell stories about who they are, but they need to practice. He cited a study that looked at American families and Asian families. Asian families, when talking about their day were focusing on discipline, order, and structure. American families were asking more elaborative questions and focusing on stories.
Three years later, they found that the Asian children were more focused on order and structure, while the American children were more focused on who they are. Feiler asked, “Why does this matter? Research has shown that when preparing for a difficult task, if you tell a story about how you’ve succeeded in the past, you’ll do better. Storytelling, as a way of building confidence, can boost your performance.”
Holding an autobiography game night as a family can help your children learn storytelling skills. It can also help them increase their self-esteem. Here are some ideas for storytelling games:
20 Storytelling Activities for Kids (Allison, No Time for Flash Cards)
Storytelling Games: Travel Poetry
Feiler said, “If you tell a story at the end of a family travel experience, you can actually embed the positive, resilient narrative that you want to create. Not that every trip will create those positive memories, but you have to actually practice and embed those memories. At the end of every trip we write a short poem about what we did to try to capture those memories in their minds so they can remember and refer back to them later.”
Here are some tips for writing poetry as a family:
Storytelling Games: Use Pictures
Feiler suggested that for engaging young people, millennials and teens, we must use pictures. Young people are using pictures for storytelling.
He said, “We know now because of cell phones that more pictures are taken every day than in the first century of photography. Young people are using pictures for storytelling. That’s the way to engage them because they have their [phone] camera with them at all times.”
MakeFamilyHistory.org has many ideas for using photos and other technology that young people love for family history activities:
Activities to make family history using photos, videos, art and more (MakeFamilyHistory.org)
Tell your family history
Feiler said that his 2013 NY Times article, The Stories that Bind Us, was the most emailed article for a month and the second most saved article in the Pocket app for 2013. In the article, he reviews a study about children’s resilience and the intergenerational self by Marshall P. Duke and Robyn Fivush, psychologists at Emory University. Duke and Fivush found that the children in the study who knew more about their family’s history “had a sense that they were part of an intergenerational self. A narrative that goes back deep in time.” What about adopted children? Marshall Duke has 1 adopted child; he said it has nothing to do with biology, but talking about what it means to be part of your family.”
Families typically talk about themselves in three kinds of narratives:
Ascending Narrative: we had nothing, we worked hard, now we have it all
Descending Narrative: we had a lot, then the war came, and we lost it all
Oscillating Narrative: Grandfather was first to go to school, became vice president of a bank, then his house burned down. His son had a successful life, and his wife got breast cancer.
Feiler said, “Children who understand that they come from an oscillating narrative know that when they hit hardships, and they will hit hardships, they can get through them. Not because of what they saw in a movie or a book, but because of people in their own family.”
He said, “It’s harder than you think. Our instinct is to protect our children and our family: we don’t want them to know that we’ve had pain or that there’s been suffering in our families. We have to get over those instincts. We have to fling open our cupboard doors and in an age appropriate way share with them the difficulties that we and our family members have survived.”
Make storytelling part of your every day
Feiler concluded with this advice:
“Take your story and ground it in the oldest stories that have ever been told. Go back. Connect your story to your community, to your faith, to your school, company, country, to whatever it is.”
“Find a way to make sure that these stories are not just something that are living inside the computers, but are every day.”
“Don’t just keep it to yourself. Share it with those around you. Do it at the dinner table, at the carpool, when you’re taking a walk, when you’re folding the laundry. Make family history a part of your every day.”
Watch Bruce Feiler’s entire talk here: 2016 RootsTech – Thursday Keynote – Bruce Feiler
For many of us, making family storytelling a part of our every day is a challenge. Yesterday, my husband’s cousin hosted Easter dinner. As she was telling us where to sit and about the food, she mentioned that one of the place settings was Grandma Nonie’s china pattern (blackberry) and that the bowl of lemon drops was in honor of Grandpa Richards. These simple ways to remember loved ones gave me the chance to tell my five year old about Grandpa Richards in a way that he will be able to remember.
What do you do to remind you of your family’s narrative? How do you share family stories with relatives, children, grandchildren, and make it part of your every day?
The Secrets of Happy Families by Bruce Feiler (affiliate link*)
The Council of Dads by Bruce Feiler (affiliate link*)
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