By Carolyn L. Barkley
I spent my summers in a household that brought together four generations of my mother’s family. From a very early age, I heard stories about the people with whom I was living, including my great-grandmother (born in 1864), as well as about other relatives then long dead. My experience was not unusual in my family—my mother had grown-up in a household that included her great-grandmother (born in 1840). It was a family that talked freely about its past so that hearing stories and learning about relationships among family members were regular parts of my life. These experiences led me to create my first hand-drawn family tree when I was about thirteen and to develop a life-long interest in history and genealogy.
I believe that the framework of family life has changed in the intervening number of years. (I’m not saying how many!) As families have spread out across the country, and sometimes the globe, the oral tradition and regular exposure to members of an extended family have become less and less a part of everyday life. My own son probably doesn’t know much beyond his grandparents, despite my attempts to share that information with him. He’ll listen, but I’m not sure how interested he is as his personal knowledge is limited. Now, I look to my three grand-daughters. One of them must be the one to don the mantle of the family historian. I know which one I’d like it to be, but then she’s my favorite (don’t tell her) and that colors my hopes.
How then, do we involve our children or grandchildren in history in general – and family history and genealogy in particular – so that our abiding interest and fascination with our family will survive into the future? [I realize that not all families will have the ability or opportunity to know about their families. When discovery is impossible, the same skills and interests can be engaged by “adopting” someone else’s family…an historical figure, a sports icon, a movie star.] The key appears to be consistent exposure, active engagement, and an effort to portray ancestors as real people who lived in a real time and place and who have consistent links to the present. Here are some suggestions.
1. Keep it fun and engage the interest of your child in a manner that is age appropriate. Genealogy is detective work, similar to putting together a jigsaw puzzle. The process of discovery should be as fun and fulfilling as the actual information that is found.
2. Plan a family story night.
Is your child interested in sports? Studying the Revolutionary War in school? Is he or she excited about a specific subject or event? If your family has an ancestor or story that ties in with this interest, tell a story about that person. If no subject link can be found, pick a colorful ancestor and tell a story about him or her. Keep a notebook of the stories so that they aggregate into a history of the family.
3. Make it visual.
Family trees are a good way to place family stories in context. Downloadable forms specifically for kids can be found on the Internet at Kids’ Turn Central. Included is a teddy bear tree that will allow even younger children to participate in creating a family tree. In addition, Disney Studios enlists Tigger to help younger children create a family tree. Older children may enjoy creating a family history map. A map project for ages 4 to 10 can be found at the Family Fun magazine’s website. One historical society created “baseball cards” for various historical personages and the same idea could be applied to family members.
4. Create links between kids and ancestors while you learn.
Do pictures of ancestors show a resemblance to your child? Are there little boys in dresses? Old cars? Funny hats?
Do you have things that belonged to any of the people on the chart or in the stories? Use quilts, baby clothes, shaving cups, dishes, furniture and other objects to add more information about people on the family tree. Are there letters from one ancestor to another? What do they add to your child’s understanding of the ancestor’s life and location?
5. Discover new information together.
Older children may enjoy interviewing members of the family. Create a set of interview questions to collect dates and places, events of interest, occupations, residences, and remembered stories. Find out if anyone in the family immigrated. When? Why? Learn about occupations. What “funny” long-ago jobs were held by ancestors? What did they actually do in that occupation? Do those jobs still exist? How have they changed?
If an ancestor participated in an historical event, plan a family trip to visit the site to learn more about that experience.
After completing these activities, write summaries of what was learned. Organize stories, photos, family charts, and other information so that it can be shared with others in the family.
6. Participate in outside genealogical activities.
Scouting is a great way to engage the child who is truly interested in learning more about family history. The Boy Scouts of America have several activities that build skills and support interest in genealogy. The Cub Scout Heritages Belt Loop includes requirements to talk with members of the scout’s family about its heritage, history, traditions and culture; to make a poster showing ancestral origins; and to draw a three-generation family tree. The requirements for the associated academics pin include attending a family reunion, creating a family album, and visiting a genealogy library. The Boy Scout Genealogy Merit Badge is a much more in-depth project for those with a greater interest in learning about their family and the process of genealogical research.
Time spent with your child in the exploration of your family’s history (or the history of an “adopted” family) will be an enjoyable way to foster an interest in history. Research skills will be developed and, if you are lucky, you will be able to share your interest in genealogy with a child who will preserve and enlarge upon your work in the future.
7. Other sources that will assist you in planning further activities with your child:
World Gen Web for kids (18 and under)
Roots for Kids: A Genealogy Guide for Young People, by Susan Provost Beller 2nd ed. (Genealogical Publ. Co., 2007)
Climbing Your Family Tree: Online & Off-line Genealogy for Kids, by Ira Wolfman. (Reed Business Info, 2003). Grades 5-9
First Steps in Genealogy: A Beginner’s Guide to Researching Your Family History, by Desmond Walls Allen (Betterway Books, 1998)
For the teacher:
Teaching with Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, 2 vol. (National Archives, 1989-1998)