The Power of Story Part One—Learning From Haitian Youths

group of african american college studentsHaiti, one of the poorest nations in the Western Hemisphere, is a place that understands the power of story. In a country marked by food shortages, irregular or nonexistent electricity, almost no medical care, and no money for schools or school supplies, Haitian youths display a tremendous amount of resilience.

The University of Illinois recently completed a study examining the cultural identity and well-being of adolescents in the Caribbean. In spite of the fact that the majority of Haitian youths deal with the daily effects of poverty, they have a very impressive lesson to teach us.

Researchers measured the strength of family obligations and cultural orientation among early adolescents aged 10 to 14 years in rural Haiti. The findings show that Haitian teens, especially boys, believe very strongly that they should respect and obey their parents and assist them when they need help without being paid for it.

University of Illinois professor of human development and family studies, Gail Ferguson, remarks: “Can you imagine how helpful that would be for a family with few resources? That attitude in itself contributes to a close parent child relationship, which is a positive factor in adolescent development.”

She continues: “These teens report having a strong sense of family obligation and an attachment to Haitian culture, which probably protects them and contributes to their resilience.”(Haitian youths displayed an affinity for their culture that was nearly three times as high as that of  American youths.)

But what do these findings have to do with stories? Plenty.

“Haitian culture is known for its creativity and it’s close community bonds. The arts, particularly visual arts and a love of story, provide an emotional outlet for Haitian youth, helping to channel their emotions, desires, and needs.

Our stories link us to our ancestors, our families, our place of birth, our culture, our emotions, and our past, present, and future. They teach us values, morals, and object lessons. Stories anchor us to a place of belonging and expand our horizons toward new vistas and opportunities. They help us understand who we are, where we came from, what’s important in life, and indeed what life is all about. Each family has a story, as does each culture.

What these young people teach us is that it’s much more important to be rich in family ties, to be part of our own story, and to be rooted in our own culture and identity than it is to have the trappings of success that are oh-so-important in our part of the world.

What stories do we share with our children? Do we recognize what a tremendous impact stories have on our youth today? In a world that is inundated with narrative in the forms of television, movies, gaming, news, and media, it can be easy to forget the importance of handing down family stories, histories, and anecdotes. Do we take the time to make sure our children know their own personal stories?


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