“We can chart our future clearly and wisely only when we know the path which has led to the present.”
Human beings are unique in being able to learn from the experience of others. We are also highly social beings unable to function without having a place in a group. We need to know who our tribe is so we can know whose good opinion we need to maintain, and for men, who we need to take care of.
That’s why it’s always important for a man to know where he comes from, and to teach this to his children. Our current place in life is what tells us of our responsibilities – our friends and family, if we have one; our job; our community. But it doesn’t tell us how we got there or where we might go.
Knowing the past can also help you weather misfortune and plan for the future. A man who knows only his own life can plan only based on his own experience. A man who knows what his father, uncles, and grandfathers did knows more about what options a man has to build a life and what misfortunes he might endure. Understanding the trials and sacrifices of those who came before him may also motivate him not to act in ways that would dishonor those efforts. In the case of mistakes those men made, knowing also teaches him what to avoid – especially since the mistakes of a relative are more likely to be repeated by him than the mistakes of a stranger.
Your children will appreciate this too, even if they don’t know it. It’s been shown that children who know their relatives and their family story are psychologically healthier. Knowing the story helps them to feel part of something bigger, which we all crave, and takes them out of the immediacy of their own lives. Everything is new for a child – knowing that their family has gone ahead of them can be grounding. The healthiest way to tell the family history to the child is to give both the good and the bad – knowing that there have been ups and downs moves the emphasis from putting pressure on the child to be perfect or from burdening them with a narrative of failure. Instead it says that people can recover, and that choices matter, and that even when things go wrong a family can stick together. This is important for a child to know.
If you’re interested, the authors of the study release the 20 questions they used to measure children’s knowledge of their family history here.