Connect To The Youth In Your Family By Connecting Them To Their Family History

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Traditions of Gratitude

It's that time of year.  The chill has finally settled in my part of the country and I think it might actually stay this time.  The vibrant colors of the foliage on the mountains and in the valley has been replaced with a dusting of snow and a crunching of crackly leaves under my feet.  Frost settles each morning over the landscape and my heart warms up just a hitch.  Not because of the cold but because of the season.  November has arrived, and with it, a resolve to not get lost in the glitzy and gaudy displays of commercial Christmas that has already invaded every inch of every store I walk into these past few days.  I love Christmas, don't get me wrong.  But I can't help but feel we're doing ourselves a great disservice if we rush right into it without pausing to embrace Thanksgiving first.  And so, I am making it a sticking point around here for the next few weeks to really focus on thinking and talking about Thanksgiving.  And the first point I'd like to discuss has to do with traditions.

What are your traditions when this time of year comes?  We all have some, even if we don't realize they are traditions.  Sometimes we just think, "Well, that's just what you do this time of year."  But have you paused to ask your family what "traditions" they remember from growing up, or that they look forward to each year, when it comes to Thanksgiving?  It's easy to pin point Christmas or Hanukkah traditions, but what (besides turkey and football) do you and your family do for Thanksgiving?

In doing some preparation for one of my upcoming Rootstech presentations, I have been doing a lot of reading about the science behind family history and family narratives.  There is a great deal of power behind both.  One of the sources I am studying is The Secrets of Happy Families by Bruce Feiler.  It's a really fascinating read but one section really caught my eye recently as I reread a section and it talked about the author's experience with Emory Psychology professor, Marshall Duke.  The author had a chance to gather with Duke's family for a Shabbat dinner, one Friday evening, to discuss the power of family narratives.  Duke discussed the work that he and colleague Robyn Fivush have spent a great portion of their careers in studying children's resilience.  They have pioneered the field and determined that those children, and later adults, who are the most balanced and resilient in their lives are those who have a strong "intergenerational self."  In other words, they know they belong to something bigger than themselves (their families).  They know this because of involvement in family narratives and personal family history.  Narratives are huge and it turns out that Grandma's are key in the passing on of narratives.  Go figure, right?

Back to the Shabbat dinner Feiler spent with Duke's family, though.  Dinner time is key in the Duke home to the sharing of narratives but Duke insisted that traditions and narratives can be shared any time, not just at dinner.  But seeing as how it was a meal time, Feiler decided to ask Duke's children about their favorite traditions and narratives.  The Thanksgiving tradition stuck out the most to Feiler --it's hilarious!  It appears, in the Duke family, that Thanksgiving is a four day extravaganza of obscure and downright odd traditions.  It all kicks off the Tuesday before Thanksgiving when the family eats turkey sandwiches for dinner.  Then on Wednesday, they all eat spaghetti for dinner and paint mustaches on each other.  On Thursday they hide cans of pumpkin sauce, bags of green beans, and a frozen Turkey so the family can all "hunt" for their food like the Pilgrims.  Finally on Friday, they eat their Thanksgiving meal as a family.  And if all of that isn't quirky enough, the family has color coded teams and they compete all weekend long for points.  The winning team claims a plastic duck.  The Dukes have been doing this for over thirty years and no one really had a specific reason for why any of those traditions started or carried through.  They just did it that way one time and it all stuck.  And not just the traditions, as odd as they may seem to some (okay, me), but the memories attached to them.  The traditions just "become part of your family," Duke said.  And it's what the Duke children loved telling Feiler about.  It's what made their family theirs.  

And so it is.  Something silly or obscure happens and it's what sticks.  And before you know it, you don't know why or how, but it is your family's and this time of year just wouldn't be the same without it.  We've all got something right?  Specific recipes that have to be on the Thanksgiving table.  Watching the parade in the morning.  Special china and crystal used for the meal.  In my family it is open faced turkey sandwiches with cheese melted all over them the day after.  Sharing our thoughts of gratitude while gathered around the table or a prayer of thanksgiving while we hold hands.  Or painting on mustaches and competing for a plastic duck.  Each family has something unique that makes their Thanksgiving only theirs.  What can you pin down as something you do each year that makes Thanksgiving yours?  And how do your children and grandchildren play into that?  Do they even know that it is a tradition for your family?  If not, can you find a way this year to instill in them that what you do as a family, you do for a reason?  Can this be the year that you make a point of being the bridge from your family's past to your family's future by sharing, teaching, and encouraging the continuation of traditions?

It's easier than we think because it all starts with a conversation.  A few questions like "Do you know why I make the cranberry sauce from scratch each year?" or "Do you know why we use the china each year for our Thanksgiving meal?"  You may be surprised to know that your children and grandchildren already know.  But you may also find an amazing opportunity to share a story or experience that will have lasting impact.  The more our children and grandchildren know about their family and their history, the stronger they will be and the more likely they will be to pass along the narrative.  If you show that it matters to you, it will matter to your posterity.  So as we approach the weekend of feasting and frenetic sale shopping, I'd like to challenge you to take a moment and think of ways that you can single out and record (in a journal or in pictures) traditions for future recollection.  And I'd also like to challenge you to include the youth in your family in the execution of these traditions.  (If they feel like they own a part of it, they will be more likely to continue it in the future.)  And then sit back and watch them fly.  They may have a twist on a given tradition that you never thought of that actually makes it better.  Share the opportunities in your family and watch something amazing happen--the linking of generations and the strengthening of familial bonds.  You'll be grateful for that much more this year if you do.

Source: The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More by Bruce Feiler (pgs 40-43),  HarperCollins copyright 2013

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