Because families are so often spread out today, children often don’t grow up hearing the family lore at regular gatherings. They can become disconnected from the past and have no sense of belonging to something larger than themselves. It is important to help children know the history of their own family and to understand how they came to be who and where they are.
A lot of young people think of family history as something for older people, so as a parent you’ll need to work to get them interested. It often works best if you start young. Let your children grow up hearing the family stories you know so that they are important right from the start.
Genealogical research isn’t always the most exciting way to spend a Sunday afternoon, but many children will tackle it if it means one-on-one time with a parent. It’s especially interesting when they start with themselves and it includes some fun projects. You can print out free genealogy forms at Familysearch.org and download a high-quality free genealogy computer program. If you’re not LDS (Mormon) choose the non-LDS version.
Help your child fill out the information about herself. Then print the form and put it in a notebook. If you choose a notebook that allows you to slide a sheet of paper into the cover, she can decorate it. After she’s done that, have her draw pictures of herself and perhaps scrapbook a page of photographs and souvenirs to make this a very personal history.
On Sundays, ask your children to tell one of their memories. If they’re young, record them telling it. If they’re older, encourage them to write out the story as well. A personal history doesn’t have to be written in order. You can write any memory you wish and then organize them into the proper sequence later. Put each story—illustrated if desired—into a loose-leaf notebook so you can insert stories as needed. Over time, their entire life story will be included.
Children usually have short attention spans so just plan to do a little each week. The next time you do it, suggest your child give herself a family. She can fill out the information on the forms for her parents and siblings. If possible, have the people she is entering give her the information so it becomes a bonding experience. Again, let her draw pictures and do some simple scrapbooking.
After a while, you’ll run out of living people. Now it’s time to learn to do some research. Familysearch.org has a lot of resource materials and there are other resources online. Of course, not all histories on the internet are valid, so you want to learn to verify everything you find. You’ll want to search census records, order birth certificates, and interview relatives to find out as much as you can. Include your child in every part of the process.
Try to find more than just names and dates. Genealogy is fun when the people become real. Search the internet for stories about this person. If you can’t find an actual story, try to figure out the story from the clues—think of it as a puzzle or a mystery. For instance, make a timeline of every event in that person’s life, as well as in the lives of the parents, spouse, and children. Do you see anything interesting there? When I did this with one ancestor, I realized seven of her children died before she did and that helped her seem more real to me. I found myself thinking about how sad she must have been. I also noticed she was always moving, just as I am always moving. This gave me something in common with her.
I noticed this ancestor’s father died when she was a young teenager and that her mother remarried only three months later to a man with several babies—his wife had just died as well. Then they moved away almost immediately. I wondered how she felt about that and how her life changed. I wrote a story about it to try to imagine how she might have handled these important changes. Invite your children to write stories that help the ancestor seem more real to them.
Next, put your ancestor into history. What historical events happened in her lifetime? How would they have affected her? If she had been alive during the Civil War, for example, her life would have been affected by the war even though she would not have been a soldier herself.
Sometimes you can learn about your ancestor by other events. For instance, my ancestor and her husband followed a certain minister in colonial days. By researching the minister, I learned something about her religious beliefs and about her life, since the members of that religion moved several times as a group.
By pulling together all these clues, an ancestor can become more real. Talk as a family about how the choices that ancestor made affected you. How would your life be different if she had made different choices? This becomes particularly interesting once you’ve tracked your family into other countries. It can be fascinating for children to realize how many decisions had to be made so you and your husband could meet and marry—decisions made hundreds of years ago about where to live, what religion to join, even career and social class decisions that impacted their lives today. How are they like their ancestors? How are they different?
Try having birthday parties or immigration day parties or some other celebration for ancestors. What better way to help a child love an ancestor than to know he is going to get to have a party on that ancestor’s birthday, complete with simple period costumes, foods, and games that make it easier to understand the lifestyle of the person?
When children understand their connection to their family’s past and know how that past impacted their future, it can help them to make better choices for their own lives, understanding that these choices will affect generations to come. It gives them a sense of security and continuity, of being a part of something big and wonderful and eternal.