The Intergenerational Self

Standing in the old St. James Cemetery, Danielson, Connecticut (photo by Robert Cantor, Oct 2013)
Standing in the old St. James Cemetery, Danielson, Connecticut (photo by Robert Cantor, Oct 2013)

I started out, during my transformation from reluctant genealogist to ardent family historian, just wanting a narrative of my mother’s family history that made sense. I hoped that knowing what had really happened to Mom and Grandma would help me understand why they sometimes behaved in ways that were emotionally hurtful: Grandma toward Mom, and Mom toward me. Beyond that, I sensed that there might be a broader benefit to knowing the truth about the past, but wasn’t quite sure what it might be.

“… a self embedded in a larger familial history …”

Late in my research into the family history, I learned a phrase that made sense, not only of what kind of narrative I had created, but of why it had been so important for me to create it: the intergenerational self. According to researchers at Emory University’s Family Narrative Lab, the intergenerational self is “a self that is defined as much by one’s place in a familial history as a personal past.” They studied the degree to which preadolescents knew their own family history, then measured their self-esteem and sense of personal control. Their research led them to conclude that “… the development of an intergenerational self, a self embedded in a larger familial history, may be a resilience factor as children approach adolescence.”

The “Do You Know Scale”

The study included a questionnaire on family history, called the “Do You Know Scale,” (which they republished in The Huffington Post) containing questions about their families that the children taking the test could not know first-hand, mainly things that happened before they were born.

I took the test myself, trying to remember what I knew about my family history around the age of twelve. I scored remarkably high, which surprised me. If I knew so much about my family history, why hadn’t I felt connected to my family’s past when I was a child? Why hadn’t I felt more self-assured? It turns out that the process by which the family lore is shared is also important to a child’s sense of confidence and well-being.

The Importance of Communication Styles

In another study by the Family Narrative Lab, researchers reviewed past literature on communication styles between parents and children.  They concluded  that “… more controlling patterns of parental communication do not allow for children’s opinions and perceptions to be acknowledged, thus causing children to question their value and worth as people and their abilities to be effective agents in the world.”

Mom controlled the telling of her family history.  It probably never occurred to her that it was our family history, and that each member of the family had a right to their own interpretation of what the events of the past may have meant.  My perceptions certainly weren’t validated — Mom refused to accept my view that Grandpa hadn’t seemed like such a wonderful father.  He’d divorced Grandma while she was still in the mental hospital, and abandoned Mom at the county home. Even when I pointed out this contradiction, she would never waver from her high opinion of Grandpa.

The researchers at Emory University went on to say:  “Parental communication that is clearly validating and that acknowledges children’s perceptions and feelings allows for a sense of value and worth of the individual self, and feelings of autonomy and self-efficacy.”

Having delved into the details of her family history, I now understand why Mom could not allow collaborative discussions of her stories. She may have felt that being drawn into a discussion of everything she remembered about growing up would risk exposing the feelings, not to mention secrets, she had repressed. In Secrets of the Asylum, I reveal what those were.

Sources Consulted

1. Fivush, R., Bohanek, J.G., & Duke, M. “The intergenerational self: subjective perspective and family history.” In F. Sani (Ed.). Individual and Collective Self-Continuity. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 2008. p. 131-143.

2. Duke, Marshall P. “The Stories That Bind Us: What Are the Twenty Questions?” Huffington Post, March 23, 2013; updated May 23, 2013.

3. Bohanek, Jennifer G., Kelly A. Marin, Robyn Fivush, Marshall P. Duke. “Family Narrative Interaction and Children’s Sense of Self.” Family Process, v. 45(1), 39-54, 2006.

5 thoughts on “The Intergenerational Self”

  1. Thanks! Your research reminds me of how devastating it must be for so many African American families whose past were literally ripped from them.

  2. After reading your blog, I looked up the NY Times article,” The Family Stories That Bind Us” by Bruce Feiler. The article shed light on the importance of intergenerational self and how this was coincidentally observed by a child psychologist in the education field. This observation was then tested in a controlled study. The conclusion being, “The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. The “Do You Know?” scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.”
    I found this fascinating and also troublesome for children who do not have a connection with their families in this way. It explains a lot of the behaviors noted for children who come from broken or fractured homes. As an educator I really was intrigued.
    However, a family having a mission statement was not something that I find necessary but I guess families with coat of arms are displaying a kind of mission statement.
    In reading your account of your intergenerational self and the journey this led you to uncover much of your family’s history was fascinating to me.

  3. Hi Julie! This is an issue I am confronting myself. My father’s family, from Hartford Conn., turned against him when he tried to have a career they didn’t approve of– or control. My dad died in 1971. I am confronting these issues and I long for connections that are broken. what is missing is the “intergenerational self.”
    A brilliant coinage.

    1. John, that’s so true. I wish you good luck in your search. I had one happy reunion with a lost branch of the family, the other, not so much. You never know what you might find, but still it’s worth doing the search for your own self-discovery.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.