Christmas and holiday season,Will Ferrell,Kwanzaa,Hanukkah

Column: Why you should tell your kids tragic stories this holiday season

December 26, 2016
in Kids

Photo by Flickr user kelly.sikkema In every culture that anthropologists have ever studied, people tell stories. Families most frequently tell stories around the time of vacations, family reunions, (sadly) funerals, Thanksgiving and, of course, the family-oriented winter holidays of Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. Stories are told about times past, times present and even times yet to be. These stories mix real people and places with imaginary people and places. For instance, there was never anyone called Sherlock Holmes, but the town he lived in – London – is real. The street he lived on – Baker Street – is also real. But there is no 221B – his house number in the story. So, why do we tell these stories? For more than two decades, my colleague, Robyn Fivush, and I have been studying the importance of family stories at Emory University’s Family Narratives Project, which conducts research on how people remember and narrate the events of their lives. And we have found that the more children know about their own family history, the healthier and more resilient they are. There are a variety of forms that family stories take. It has been our experience that the so-called “bad stories” – in which bad things happen to good people – do more to immunize children and build resilience than happy ones. What stories do families tell? Most families have stories that parallel the Seven Basic Plots proposed by journalist Christopher Booker. Briefly, these plots are: the Quest (think Lord of the Rings), Voyage and Return (Ulysses), Rags to Riches (Cinderella), Tragedy (King Lear), Comedy (Will Ferrell movie), Rebirth (The Ugly duckling, Shrek), and Overcoming the Monster (Star Wars’ Darth Vader). Generally, all of the family story plots contribute to a sense of history and resilience in families. But when dealing with difficult times, families tell the “voyage and return” and “overcoming the monster” stories. Our interviews with professionals working on...

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