5 keys to telling kids your family history–and why you should

This morning, the long-deceased Moshe Kushlewsky, previously unknown to me, was added to my family tree. This according to an email sent from Geni, a free-ish genealogy website I registered with a few years ago. It seems that I am now related to 500+ souls, living or dead, that are known to Geni. I’m not a big family-tree buff, but a few years ago a friend inspired me to sit my parents down and input the names of all those multiple great aunts and uncles whose progeny and whereabouts I never could keep straight. Since I’m now in Geni’s database, every once in a while I receive a flurry of emails from some “new” distant cousin who has taken on family-mapping as a hobby (usually these relatives are male and newly retired).

Since Mr. Kushlewsky’s morning arrival in my inbox, I’ve been thinking about whether genealogy is the slightest bit relevant to modern family life. Does it, should it, matter to your kids to know that they share a drop of blood with people who lived long ago and perhaps faraway? Like everybody else, except maybe Dick Cheney, I was tickled by the news that he and President Obama are eighth cousins. But don’t such discoveries beg the question? To what extent is ancestry even relevant? To what degree should it influence what you pass on to your children? What if your kids are adopted? Or arrived via donated sperm and/or egg? Or are living with a step-parent and siblings?

Like just about everything else, a focus on genealogy can benefit kids, or it can be a destructive and divisive force. It depends on how you use it. Family stories can spark a love of history, connect children with the past and give context to better understand the world. But family folklore can also separate, propagandize and create distance between people of different backgrounds. So here are some guidelines I’ve picked up–or made up–for passing along family history in a positive and meaningful way. Let me know what you think.

1. Talk about both sides of the family. No playing favorites when it comes to family history. Kids have a right to know about both of their parents’ roots. If you are the family’s history buff make sure you give your partner’s stories equal billing–even if you are the one telling them.

2. Inspire. This is history with a purpose. Recounting family stories is a way of instilling healthy values and helping kids feel a sense of confidence and pride in themselves and compassion for others. So make connections between your children and the positive aspects of family lore. Recount stories that emphasize the courage, honesty, intelligence and kindness of your children’s ancestors. My father used to tell me that I was named after a great-grandmother who had run a little store. Whenever someone poor came in she always gave them food for free. As an adult I can ponder the veracity of this tale–but as a child it certainly made an impression on me. It sent a clear message of what my family admired and respected–and the kind of person they hoped I’d grow up to be.

I would avoid recounting tragic tales to young children. But by the time kids are school-aged (roughly 7 or so) they can be told about ancestors who died young, had sad or scary lives, behaved badly or were victims of injustice or cruelty. Be sure the lesson you impart is helpful and upbeat. I once interviewed legendary psychologist Jerome Kagan, who emphasized the positive power of family myths to instill resiliency in children. He pointed to Frank McCourt’s beautiful memoir Angela’s Ashes, which eloquently details his bleak childhood in an Irish family gutted by poverty, illness and alcoholism. Yet McCourt’s father kept emphasizing to his sons that, despite the hardship, they came from a long line of courageous Irishmen–a legacy that buffered the author in the face of anxiety and shame.

3. No family curses! Absolutely avoid implying that anything in your family background  predetermines a negative outcome for your child. I knew a woman, we’ll call her Ms. Jones, who told all of her kids that their family was cursed–they always got the raw end of the deal. All family stories underlined this truth–great great grandpa invented a machine but someone stole the patent, a neighbor complimented aunt Y’s beautiful eyes and so she ended up needing glasses (!), during the Vietnam War draft, cousin Z pulled a low lottery number and lost his leg in the Mekong Delta.  Whenever one of this woman’s kids faced an unfairness–a B+ that should have been an A, a promotion that went to the other guy–she attributed it to the Jones Family Curse. Did her children grow up to be resilient, well-adjusted and capable of joy? That was rhetorical.

4. Don’t focus on DNA. Especially in this time of blended families, the point of genealogy for kids shouldn’t be whether they share mitochondrial DNA with their triple-great grandmother, but on the stories and values that have shaped your family. If an ancestor was a courageous and passionate abolitionist, you are passing down those qualities whenever you tell your kids his story. He is an example of what people in your family value. All of your children have equal ownership of that history because family is based on mutual love, connection and sacrifice, not chromosomes.

5. Know when to stop.  Please, Mom, not another boring family story!  If their eyes are glazing over, it’s time to move on. You have their entire childhoods to impart family lore, so be strategic in your timing. When your daughter works hard to master a handstand and finally succeeds, maybe that’s the time to tell her, “you remind me so much of my wonderful Aunt Betty! You just keep at it until you succeed. Did I ever tell you about how she won her school’s track meet with a sprained ankle?” If you’re lucky, your kids will sometimes come to you, curious to know about their roots. But when they lose interest, let it alone. I’ll give the last word to my son, who in third grade had to fill out a teacher’s questionnaire about his experiences at the school’s Grandparents Day. “What did you learn today about your grandparents?” it asked. His response: “Enough.”

Teach Them to Make Choices

Start when they are toddlers. Instead of “put on your pants,” try, “would you like to wear your red pants or blue ones?” Instead of “time to go,” say,” should we put on your hat first or your mittens?” Letting them choose helps them feel more in control of their day-thus helping your day go more smoothly. But offering a choice is more than a ploy. It also begins your child on the long journey toward becoming his own person. Who you are and what you accomplish in life is rooted in the decisions you make. It takes practice to get it right. Children whose parents make all decisions for them often flounder in early adulthood when they have to fly solo. They’ve been disciplined, but they haven’t learned self-discipline.

Kids raised in households where they don’t get to make decisions may grow up to be ultra-rigid, doing everything exactly the way Mom and Dad taught them, even if circumstances suggest it’s time for a change. Or, they may grow up to feel lost and ineffectual because they haven’t had the opportunity to develop the problem-solving tools adulthood requires. So, whenever you can, give them the opportunity to decide what to eat, wear, play with. If it’s raining out don’t immediately reach for his rain coat. You can point to the rain through the window and ask him how his body might feel if he wears just his sweater. Ask, “Which coat do you think you should wear today?” Say “good thinking!” when he concludes for himself that his slicker is the best choice.

As with all aspects of parenting, overdoing this rule can be disastrous. Allowing your child to wear only his sweatshirt during a blizzard isn’t teaching him to take responsibility for his choices, it’s being an irresponsible parent. It’s your job to limit his choices to options you find acceptable. At the dinner table you let him know that he can choose carrots or string beans. But marshmallows are not on the menu.

Don’t Be Their Friend

With the world population closing in on seven billion, let’s assume that your child has plenty of people to choose from when looking for friends. You are not one of them. It is, perhaps, one of the necessary tragedies of parenthood that you are—or should be—precluded from being your children’s pal. Instead, you get to be the rain on their parade, the wet blanket at their party, the fly in their ointment. Someone has to tell a child “no.” Out of the billions, you’re elected. It’s easier to cope with this unfortunate reality if you remember one of the cardinal truths about parenting little kids: It’s a role. You can’t just ”be yourself” and succeed as a parent. We all have many different selves—including the one that still thinks and feels like a child and would just as soon always be first, leave the crackers and cheese on the sofa, let someone else put away the Barbies, and stay up all night doing whatever wild, outrageous, and perhaps illegal things we did before becoming parents. Then there’s our responsible, sacrificing, reliable, nurturing side. It’s clear which of those two “yous” should be on display in front of your kids. For children to grow into reasonable adults they need their parents to act like, well, parents!

Being playful with your kids is part of effective parenting. But the parent act also entails making unpopular decisions. The best way to draw the critical line between being friendly and being friends is to remain aware of your own motivations. Before saying “yes” to the ice cream cone ask yourself if you’re agreeing because it’s a good time for a treat or because you don’t want to be the bad guy. If it’s the latter, your child is better off hearing you say, “not today. If life with your little one resembles a buddy movie, it’s time to toughen your act.

Say Yes Five Times More Often Than No

Couples in marriage counseling tell me that working on their relationship often makes them better parents as well. That’s because certain principles-such as respect, empathy and effective communication-apply to all close relationships. If you were to distill the best marital advice into a single rule that would apply equally to parenting it would be: Accentuate the positive. I know this thanks to Dr. John Gottman of the University of Washington, with whom I have co-authored books on marriage, based on his research. For decades he has painstakingly investigated why some marriages tick away happily while others explode like time bombs. Gottman has reams of videotapes which document couples in his lab, talking together about everyday topics as well as arguing and making up. He uses a scientific method to code their verbal and body language second by second, along with every change in their heart rates, blood pressures and other physiological measures of tension and calmness. Based on this data he is able to predict with stunning accuracy whether a couple will eventually divorce or stay happily married. Many factors figure into his predictions. But among the most salient is whether partners are habitually positive or negative in their interactions. Specifically, he finds that when couples are five times more likely to smile, talk pleasantly, and respond with interest to the other’s comments than they are to snipe or be critical, their marriage is likely to flourish. On the other hand, if the negatives outweigh the positives, the relationship is pretty much toast.

Gottman doesn’t recommend eliminating the negative altogether (it has a place in a healthy marriage as well) but to overwhelm it with far more positive moments. What works in marriage works with kids. It’s common sense. If your child feels you’re usually on her side, rather than on her case, she’s going to feel good about herself-and about you. There’s a huge payoff for her in the long run. And, for you-well, let’s face it: A happy child is a lot easier to get along with and discipline than one who feels under siege.

If you build up plenty of good will, your child assumes you love and respect her. And that means that your three-year-old won’t be overly traumatized when you do lose it now and then. It’s frighteningly easy to fall into a “no!” jag when dealing with little kids. The more you say “no,” the more children may ricochet from one outrageous act to the next. So choose your battles wisely. Like spouses, little kids can only take so much nagging. But unlike spouses, few of them (yet) have the guts to face you squarely, hands on hips and say “layoff!” Instead, they fling their fork on the floor, or take off their diaper without telling you, or do any of a million annoying things that may seem like calculated attempts to drive you nuts but are really innocent signs that they are feeling over- whelmed and don’t really know why. They just know things are not going the way they wished they would.

So help them out. Keep a little 5: 1 scale of kisses vs. hisses in your head. Make sure that on days when the “nos” seem to be ruling you dole out extra measures of hugs and laughter.

Sometimes Nothing Is Going to Work

Newborns don’t do much other than sleep, cry, drink, and poop. Sounds simple at first, but so do some of life’s most complex problems. Soon after my friend Gina brought her newborn home from the hospital she was stymied by the following: whether to change his diaper before or after breastfeeding him. Her goal was for him to nurse and then drift off into blissful sleep like all the babies in the nursing videotapes they showed her at the hospital. But inevitably, her son would poop right before or during his feeding. If she changed his diaper first, by the time she brought him to her breast he would be sucking and crying at the same time because he was so hungry. This would lead to spit up and gas, which prevented him from sleeping. She tried changing him after a feeding but this would wake him up, which would start the whole scream/suckle/spit-up/poop cycle all over again. She even tried letting him drain one breast and then changing him before giving him the second one. But putting him on the changing table also made him spit up, which got him so upset that the one remaining breast wasn’t enough to soothe him to sleep. “What should I do?” she asked me. So I told her the truth. “There’s nothing you can do.” And then I added, “Get used to it.” That’s just how it is with all children, not just newborns. Sometimes nothing works and you’re left to muddle through. Almost always, kids outgrow these daily, insurmountable problems. In the meantime, you just do your best. In the morning you change the diaper before the nursing. If that doesn’t work you try changing it halfway through. On some days you get lucky, on others you get frustrated. Meanwhile, the baby keeps growing until he’s out of the spit-up and yellow poop stage and ready to present you with even more ghastly problems. Part of being a parent is to try really hard to solve these problems. But part of being a parent is also to realize when you cannot. Instead, you just survive until the problem solves itself.