Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Granddad’s first job, the old homestead, mom’s legendary cooking: Family stories make effective armor for children in an unsure world, according to a three-year study of 40 families by Emory University.

It found that children who share in those endearing and even heroic memories can grow strong and resilient for a simple reason: They have proof from mom and dad that family life goes on, despite negative outside events.

“The power of the family stories and the family history is really remarkable,” said Robyn Fivush, a psychologist who directed the study, which was released yesterday by the Georgia university.

“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,” she said.

It’s all part of raising what she calls “the resilient child.”

Youngsters benefited from knowing the “‘characters’ in their family’s history,” according to the study. Children saw relatives “as heroes, as larger than life, as having lessons to teach. … That sense of specialness provided them with not only resilience in the face of inevitable life challenges, but with resistance to, even immunity from, the effects of various life stresses.”

The study focused on a cross-section of families in the Atlanta area. The researchers recorded more than 120 hours of dinnertime conversations three years ago, using routine chitchat as a gauge of how well the family was functioning.

The parents also were asked to share both positive and negative events with their children and to tuck in questions developed by Emory psychologist Marshall Duke that were meant to spark the conversation.

Among his suggestions: “Do you know where your grandparents grew up and went to school?”

The researchers revisited the families this year to find that the children — particularly those on the brink of adolescence — had benefited from family stories, particularly those that illustrated how relatives overcame their own problems. The old-fashioned family dinner proved ideal for the exchange, the researchers found.

“The time we spend with the family at the dinnertimes should be held sacred,” Mr. Duke said.

“As the family talks about things, I think they are teaching the kids about assessment, about appraisal. ‘How bad is this?’ ‘How good is this?’” he said.

Both researchers advise parents to seize the opportunity to talk about the old days with their children whenever they can, and even offer guidelines for parents who feel self-conscious — or clueless.

Other studies support their findings. Earlier this month, Harvard University deemed the at-home family meal “protective” to children because it helped curb high-risk behavior such as tobacco, alcohol and marijuana use.

A Columbia University study of teen lifestyles last year found that among teenagers who shunned dinner with mom and dad, 72 percent were more likely to use illegal drugs, smoke and drink alcohol.

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