Do you know where your parents were married?
Do you know the source of your name?
Do you know which person in your family you look most like?
Do you know some of the lessons that your parents learned from good or bad experiences?
Do you know about a relative whose face "froze" in a grumpy position because he or she did not smile enough?
The above questions are five of twenty that the Family Narratives Lab at Emory University uses to study the mental health and resilience of children. The questions, known as the DYK (Do You Know?) Scale probes children for family knowledge they could not have learned firsthand, but only from other family members.
Studies have shown that children who answered yes to more of these questions were more confident, more adept at facing challenges and had a stronger sense of control over their lives. A 2013 article in the New York Times by Bruce Feiler popularized the scale as it recounted the author’s own experience of a family holiday wrought with tension – one that is very familiar to most of us:
Sure enough, one night all the tensions boiled over. At dinner, I noticed my nephew texting under the table. I knew I shouldn’t say anything, but I couldn’t help myself and asked him to stop.
Ka-boom! My sister snapped at me to not discipline her child. My dad pointed out that my girls were the ones balancing spoons on their noses. My mom said none of the grandchildren had manners. Within minutes, everyone had fled to separate corners.
As the holidays approach, we all know what it is to be full. The stores fill with colorful decorations, the calendars fill with events, our plates fill with food, and our emotions... are so immensely full that they often, as Feiler put it, boil over. And that is bad, right?
Why do we even gather for these traditions? This personal time? Wouldn’t we rather be in our routines? On our phones? Saving the money and the time and the gut-wrenching political debates? Do you really want to relive the time Uncle Joe got drunk and let your dog out of the backyard, then the dog was hit by a car? Do you want your nose rubbed in your sister’s successful career for the eighteenth time? Do you really need your mom to comment on how messy your car is? Again and again. As you imagine yourself the Grinch with the little animated drumsticks beating at your temples?
Can’t we just make the kids a cheat sheet answering the 20 questions on the DYK Scale, have them study it, pass the test and live in excellent mental health thereafter?
No. Because that’s not how it works. Those DYK questions are not about a fact sheet. They are not about the answers. In fact the answers on the actual test are simply “Yes” or “No.” The test is about whether kids have spent enough time in dialogue with their families to learn from them. And that cannot be done through a Q & A. It can only happen organically, through shared experiences.
No one likes the boat rocked, the pot stirred, the house of cards spattering to the table, but if we focus on those moments – or worse, avoid those moments – we miss what Bing and Nat and Frank and all those other crooners meant when they called us home for the holidays. Because home is the only place we are full enough to boil over together.
Over the next several weeks, AM Insights will be exploring how families form their legacies over these small moments, traditions and the holiday mayhem. These are the ties that bond us, that we identify with and that we pass down to the next generation. It is where we learn to answer the most important DYK questions: Who are we? And how will we be remembered?