They understand they are part of a history larger than just themselves. They are not just living in the moment. (See Bruce Feiler's New York Times article, "The Family Stories That Bind Us," March 15, 2013).)
A 10-year-old boy shuffled into my office for therapy, head down and shoulders slumped.
His father followed. "Our son has been stealing, and we don't know what to do about it."
His mother sighed. "We've tried everything and can't get him to quit."
A handsome bronze-skinned, black-eyed boy sat before me. Both parents were clearly Caucasian so I looked up at them questioningly.
"Sam is a Native American--Cheyenne," his father said.
"Oh." I smiled. "One of the most fearless tribes in the West."
Sam looked up at me for the first time.
"We adopted him as a baby," said his mother.
I nodded. "What do you know about your tribe?" I asked.
Sam shrugged his shoulders. "Nothing."
I looked at the parents. "We've got some problems to work out here in counseling," I said, turning back to Sam. "But I'd like to give you an assignment to find out more about your people."
"I'll learn with you," I said. "I know a little about the legend of the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers. They fought for their people. Let's talk about them next week when we meet."
Sam sat up straight. "Okay." He looked questioningly at his mother.
"We'll do that." She smiled.
During the rest of the session we discussed the petty thievery and set some goals.
Sam made remarkable progress in his counseling. His parents set some boundaries and helped him solve his problems through better communication. His stealing stopped as he learned who he was and where he came from.
He read everything in the library about the Cheyenne people. Soon he knew the legends and the history. His parents studied right along with Sam. They got him moccasins and a war bonnet, and took him to Native American reenactments and powwows.
I only saw Sam for a few sessions, but his mother kept in touch with me over the years. Sam had some leadership ability because he taught all his friends about Native Americans. Soon some of them were going to the reenactments along with the family. Sam's parents gave him the best of both cultures, and he learned to fit easily into both.
We could discuss the reasons for Sam's thievery in the first place, but that really isn't necessary. He changed and became morally honest with those around him. That's all that matters.
What caused the drastic change in Sam's behavior?
He became grounded in his culture.
He learned the story of his people.
He gained an identity:
His family developed traditions and activities.
His family supported Sam so he could become who he wanted to be.