Children need something bigger than themselves

Posted July 5
Updated July 6

Every few years during my growing up, Mom and Dad would load us into our bedraggled (and much loved) motor home and take us across the country to see historical sites. I doubt any of us will forget the feelings we had as we stood at places like the Old North Bridge in Concord, the monument to the 20th Maine in Gettysburg, and on the Mayflower replica in Plymouth, while they recounted inspiring stories of America. But it wasn’t until much later that I recognized the real power in what they were doing.

Traveling to historic sites was for us a ritual, much like the other rituals Mom and Dad worked hard to have — dinner, family prayer, nightly story reading, singing by the piano and popcorn on Sunday nights. Research studies consistently confirm that these kinds of daily, weekly, monthly and annual “rituals” help develop core features of healthy families — emotional connection, family identity, trust in a sense of order and predictability, and strong family values. No wonder consistent family dinner has repeatedly been associated with reduced risks for alcohol and drug use, aggressive and violent behaviors, poor school performance, sexual behavior, mental health problems and disordered eating patterns among youths.

Family connection and identity are powerful positive forces perhaps most importantly because they imbue children with the sureness that they belong to something bigger than themselves. That sureness lays the foundation for confidence, but it also kindles a sense of moral responsibility to be their best for others as well as themselves. Author Bruce Feiler articulated this in describing findings that children who knew the most about their family history — including stories of overcoming struggles and difficulty — proved to be more resilient and self-confident. The “intergenerational self” developed by tying children through stories and rituals to their heritage gave them strength beyond their own.

One of the most striking research findings on the effects of divorce is how it impacts a child’s “intergenerational self” and trust in belonging to something bigger than themselves. A significant explanation for the dramatic increase in numbers of religiously unaffiliated individuals is the impact of divorce on faith and religious affiliation. Children raised by divorced parents are much more likely than children whose parents were married during most of their childhood to be religious unaffiliated (35 percent versus 23 percent). As poignantly described by professor Andrew Root, the act of divorce leaves us “feeling unreal, lost, as though the world is unreliable. … How can I be at all, now that the people who are responsible for my very being are no longer together?” The lost sense of personal reality is naturally bound up with a lost sense of moral and spiritual reality.

But that does not have to be the end of the story. Even the most difficult circumstances can be overcome. Perhaps few have overcome more than Booker T. Washington, a man who like many black slaves did not even know his father’s name but devoted himself to a cause greater than himself. As a former slave finally able to go to school in post-Civil War America, he was asked to give his name during roll call. The only name he knew was his nickname, “Booker.” Recognizing that he lacked the two names the other children had, he added on the spot “Washington.”

Noting the power of the “intergenerational identity” he did not have himself, he wrote, “The very fact that the white boy … has behind and surrounding him proud family history and connection serves as a stimulus to help him to overcome obstacles when striving for success." Yet after noting this, he explained, “Years ago, I resolved that because I had no ancestry myself I would leave a record of which my children would be proud, and which might encourage them to still higher effort.” He gave the rest of his life to lifting his race. His heroic efforts to build Tuskegee Institute was key to building a culture that could eventually rise up and throw off the institutional shackles of bigotry.

A favorite quote of American presidents has been, “America is great because she is good, and if she ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.” That goodness begins at home where the core of identity and self-confidence is built one brick at a time by tying children to the moral call beyond themselves. If that is not built at home, we must seek to give it to them as a culture.


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