Dr. Marshall Duke and Dr. Robyn Fivush had a hypothesis: that children who know more about their families are more resilient and do better navigating challenges compared to children who have limited knowledge about their families. To test their hypothesis, they developed the “Do You Know?” scale that asks children to answer 20 questions about their family.

These questions purposefully ask children about things they would not know directly, either because the event happened before they were born or happened to someone they are not close to. The questions include: Do you know some of the jobs your parents had when they were young? Do you know the source of your name? Do you know some of the illnesses and injuries your parents experienced when they were younger? Do you know the national background of your family?

Drs. Duke and Fivush asked children these questions, then compared them with psychological assessments of the children drawing a remarkable conclusion. Children who know more about their family’s history have a stronger sense of control over their lives, higher self-esteem, lower levels of anxiety and fewer behavioral problems. The “Do You Know” scale was the single best predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.

However, simply knowing the answers to the questions doesn’t produce these results. It is the process of storytelling between generations that leads to increased resilience and enhanced identity. The study found that mothers and grandmothers were most likely to share stories at family events and that regular family gatherings occur more often among families with high levels of cohesiveness. Strong family connections contribute to children developing a strong sense of ‘intergenerational self,’ a feeling of being part of something bigger than themselves, which, in turn, increases children’s feelings of strength, responsibility and resilience.

Stories within families usually result in three types of unifying narratives. The first, an ascending family narrative, focuses on how the family started out with nothing, but after enduring hardships were able to build a strong, stable future. The second is the descending family narrative, which emphasizes how the family once had everything but tragically lost it all over the years. The healthiest narrative in shaping resilient children is the oscillating family narrative, which recounts the difficulties the family has faced, highlighting how the family always stuck together, whatever the circumstances.

Developing effective family communications means sharing stories among generations that show the ability to bounce back from difficult times, creating a sense of resilience. Raising resilient children is about building them up to withstand any challenge through increased self-esteem, sense of control and knowledge of strong family ties across generations. This increased sense of self and knowledge of family can also contribute to a meaningful philanthropic journey for families.

Learn more at the Seattle Foundation.