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The Importance of Offering Children an Intergenerational Identity

I grew up in a family of story tellers and talkers. They’re known for chatting, for saying goodbye, and then taking 45 minutes to make it out the door. It’s what they’ve always done, tales of triumph and failure the narrative patches holding the pieces of the family quilt together.


This skill, then, should come naturally to me. That’s why an exchange with my daughter over a game of Uno unsettled me.

“I used to play Uno with my Papa,” I told Wren. “He’s the one who taught me how to play.”

“Who’s Papa?”

“Like your Pappy. He was my grandfather.”

“Why have I never met him?” she asked.

“He died when I was your age.”

She looked sad, and I felt my stomach drop like an elevator on free fall. My grandfather was one of the biggest characters in my life, one of the most important people who played a role in my formative years and beyond. His death leveled me, and my nine-year-old daughter had no idea who he was. I’d never shown her pictures or told her stories.

His death was followed closely by the collapse of my parents’ marriage and the rearranging of family members that felt like tectonic plates shifting without end. I buried the pain, and in the process, I buried the memories.

I did exactly the opposite of what I should have done if my goal was to raise emotionally healthy children.

The importance of the narrative

My motive for keeping my family’s history quiet might have been to protect my kids from the hurt and confusion of death and divorce, or it might have been to avoid sharing my own mistakes and missteps from the past. Whatever the reason, it was the wrong choice. Researchers agree that children need to know that they have a place in a bigger story than their own.

Children who have what is called an intergenerational identity feel more in control of their lives, according to research by Dr. Marshall Duke and Dr. Robyn Fivush from Emory University. Knowing where they fit in a story also seems to paint a rosier view of the family overall, since children in the study who knew the most about their families viewed their family units in a more positive light.

Telling our kids family stories may even lower the chances of anxiety and depression, even when world events stand to trigger a negative response. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivush followed up with the kids who had participated in their study only months before. Those who knew they had a place in a larger family story were more resilient than those who scored low on what they knew about their families. An intergenerational identity helped serve as a shield between these kids and catastrophe.

There’s also the benefit of having kids who are less likely to become narcissist. Being a part of a bigger story means not being the center of the universe, a fact we want to instill in our children. We can give them both self-confidence and humility by sharing family stories, helping them develop a sense of self-worth and resilience without losing empathy and becoming solely self-focused.

Author A.J. Jacobs, organizer of the Global Family Reunion, points out another advantage of children knowing their family history: they may become interested in going even further back, looking deeper into genealogy. Their interests can create opportunities for them to find out that we live on a very interconnected planet. “It’s eye-opening,” Jacobs said during an interview. “It’s much harder to be racist and narrow-minded when you see how closely linked all the races are.”

How to tell the story

Not every narrative form is equal. Researchers recommend the oscillating family narrative when sharing family history with children. This style deals with both positive and negative events and enforces the strength of family and perseverance throughout. It avoids sharing only the ups or only the downs, instead presenting a more realistic view of life. Family life, like life in general, has good and bad.

I can use the oscillating family narrative to tell my kids about my younger years and all the memories I have with my parents and grandparents. That will eventually lead to divorce and death, obvious setbacks, but we can then move to stories about how we found ways to heal and move on. This leads to the family they have now, full of both biological and step-grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles who are focused on making a family environment for them.

Good can come from hard times, and that’s the point of the oscillating family narrative. Children will know not to expect everything to be perfect when raised on these types of stories, but they will know that even during trials, people persevere. Mistakes from our families’ pasts can serve as road maps for others, even if they are just evidence of what not to do.

Considering a child’s maturity level is key when sharing family tales. Being honest is always a win, but giving details that are appropriate to a child’s age and understanding is important. Dr. Alisha Griffith recommends parents “meet them on their level, be direct and honest, and use simple language that they would understand. It’s also important to listen to their concerns … and answer their questions.” The point of a family narrative isn’t to overwhelm kids with TMI but to allow them to see where they fit in the big picture.

Getting started

Dr. Fivush created a “Do You Know?” questionnaire that asked children in the study to answer 20 questions about their family stories. It contains questions like: Do you know how your parents met? Do you know the source of your name? Do you know where some of your grandparents grew up? These questions are a great way to start the conversation.

When it’s time to share, there’s no one way to go about it. Family reunions are a place my late uncle entertained generations with his elaborate tales. Any meal or gathering where the family is together can be a time for sharing. One friend I have even videotaped her grandparents telling family stories from their lives. Those videos are now in the hands of younger generations, preserving family stories that can continue to be passed down.

Regular occurrences, like a game of Uno, can even spark memories and offer a time to share. Family stories can take the place of books during bedtime a couple of times a week.

The reaction when I finally started unearthing some memories to pass to my kids was priceless. They winced when they heard the one about how I accidentally hit my sister in the face with a bat, laughed at my Papa mistaking poop that had fallen from my sister’s diaper for chocolate (family stopped him before he ate it), and begged for more stories as bedtime approached.

It wasn’t difficult for me to see the immediate benefits of these stories. My kids laughed, they were engaged, and they seemed to feel they were growing in the knowledge they possessed about their family members. They are learning with each knew story that they are connected to people who succeed, fail, and find ways to overcome, and that’s a gift that can be passed down for generations to come.

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Summer heat has a way of making the house feel smaller, more congested, with less room for the air to circulate. And there's nothing like the heat to make me want to strip down, cool off and lighten my load. So, motivation in three digits, now that school is back in, it's time to do a purge.

Forget the spring clean—who has time for that? Those last few months of the school year are busier than the first. And summer's warm weather entices our family outdoors on the weekends, which doesn't leave much time for re-organizing.

So, I seize the opportunity when my kids are back in school to enter my zone.

I love throwing open every closet and cupboard door, pulling out anything and everything that doesn't fit our bodies or our lives. Each joyless item purged peels off another oppressive layer of "not me" or "not us."

Stuff can obscure what really makes us feel light, capable and competent.

Stuff can stem the flow of what makes our lives work.

With my kids back in school, I am energized, motivated by the thought that I have the space to be in my head with no interruptions. No refereeing. No snacks. No naps… I am tossing. I am folding. I am stacking. I am organizing. I don't worry about having to stop. The neat-freak in me is having a field day.

Passing bedroom doors, ajar and flashing their naughty bits of chaos at me, it's more than I can handle in terms of temptation. I have to be careful, though, because I can get on a roll. Taking to my kids' rooms I tread carefully, always aware that what I think is junk can actually be their treasure.

But I usually have a good sense for what has been abandoned or invisible in plain sight for the lack of movement or the accumulation of dust. Anything that fits the description gets relegated to a box in the garage where it is on standby—in case its absence is noticed and a meltdown has ensued. Crisis averted. Either way, it's a victory.

Oh, it's quiet. So, so quiet. And I can think it all through…

Do we really need all this stuff?

Will my son really notice if I toss all this stuff?

Will my daughter be heartbroken if I donate all this stuff?

Will I really miss this dress I wore three years ago that barely fit my waist then and had me holding in my tummy all night, and that I for sure cannot zip today?

Can we live without it all? All. This. Stuff?

The fall purge always gets me wondering, where in the world does all this stuff come from? So with the beginning of the school year upon us, I vow to create a new mindset to evaluate everything that enters my home from now on, so that there will be so much less stuff.

I vow to really think about objects before they enter my home…

…to evaluate what is really useful,

...to consider when it would be useful,

...to imagine where it would be useful,

...to remember why it may be useful,

…to decide how to use it in more than one way,

... so that all this stuff won't get in the way of what really matters—time and attention for my kids and our lives as a new year reveals more layers of the real stuff—what my kids are made of.

Bring it on.

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In the moments after we give birth, we desperately want to hear our baby cry. In the middle of the night a few months later it's no longer exactly music to our ears, but those cries aren't just telling us that baby needs a night feeding: They're also giving us a hint at what our children may sound like as kindergarteners, and adults.

New research published in the journal Biology Letters suggests the pitch of a 4-month-old's cry predicts the pitch they'll use to ask for more cookies at age five and maybe even later on as adults.

The study saw 2 to 5-month olds recorded while crying. Five years later, the researchers hit record again and chatted with the now speaking children. Their findings, combined with previous work on the subject, suggest it's possible to figure out what a baby's voice will sound like later in life, and that the pitch of our adult voices may be traceable back to the time we spend in utero. Further studies are needed, but scientists are very interested in how factors before birth can impact decades later.

"In utero, you have a lot of different things that can alter and impact your life — not only as a baby, but also at an adult stage," one of the authors of the study, Nicolas Mathevon, told the New York Times.

The New York Times also spoke with Carolyn Hodges, an assistant professor of anthropology at Boston University who was not involved in the study. According to Hodges, while voice pitch may not seem like a big deal, it impacts how we perceive people in very real ways.

Voice pitch is a factor in how attractive we think people are, how trustworthy. But why we find certain pitches more or less appealing isn't known. "There aren't many studies that address these questions, so that makes this research especially intriguing," Hodges said, adding that it "suggests that individual differences in voice pitch may have their origins very, very early in development."

So the pitch of that midnight cry may have been determined months ago, and it may determine part of your child's future, too. There are still so many things we don't know, but as parents we do know one thing: Our babies cries (as much as we don't want to hear them all the time) really are something special.

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For many years, Serena Williams seemed as perfect as a person could be. But now, Serena is a mom. She's imperfect and she's being honest about that and we're so grateful.

On the cover of TIME, Williams owns her imperfection, and in doing so, she gives mothers around the world permission to be as real as she is being.

"Nothing about me right now is perfect," she told TIME. "But I'm perfectly Serena."

The interview sheds light on Williams' recovery from her traumatic birth experience, and how her mental health has been impacted by the challenges she's faced in going from a medical emergency to new motherhood and back to the tennis court all within one year.

"Some days, I cry. I'm really sad. I've had meltdowns. It's been a really tough 11 months," she said.

It would have been easy for Williams to keep her struggles to herself over the last year. She didn't have to tell the world about her life-threatening birth experience, her decision to stop breastfeeding, her maternal mental health, how she missed her daughter's first steps, or any of it. But she did share these experiences, and in doing so she started incredibly powerful conversations on a national stage.

After Serena lost at Wimbledon this summer, she told the mothers watching around the world that she was playing for them. "And I tried," she said through tears. "I look forward to continuing to be back out here and doing what I do best."

In the TIME cover story, what happened before that match, where Williams lost to Angelique Kerber was revealed. TIME reports that Williams checked her phone about 10 minutes before the match, and learned, via Instagram, that the man convicted of fatally shooting her sister Yetunde Price, in 2003 is out on parole.

"I couldn't shake it out of my mind," Serena says. "It was hard because all I think about is her kids," she says. She was playing for all the mothers out there, but she had a specific mother on her mind during that historic match.

Williams' performance at Wimbledon wasn't perfect, and neither is she, as she clearly states on the cover of time. But motherhood isn't perfect either. It's okay to admit that. Thanks, Serena, for showing us how.

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There are some mornings where I wake up and I'm ready for the day. My alarm goes off and I pop out of bed and hum along as I make breakfast before my son wakes up. But then there are days where I just want 10 more minutes to sleep in. Or breakfast feels impossible to make because all our time has run out. Or I just feel overwhelmed and unprepared.

Those are the mornings I stare at the fridge and think, Can someone else just make breakfast, please?

Enter: make-ahead breakfasts. We spoke to the geniuses at Pinterest and they shared their top 10 pins all around this beautiful, planned-ahead treat. Here they are.

(You're welcome, future self.)

1. Make-ahead breakfast enchiladas

www.pinterest.com

Created by Bellyful

I'd make these for dinner, too.

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