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Child development experts and social studies teachers agree: learning about family heritage is an important activity to engage in with your child. Not only will it help in developing her sense of identity and belonging, but it will also spark her interest in history. Not sure where to get started? Here’s a quick guide to Genealogy 101:
Start researching your roots by asking questions of senior family members. Getting your children involved at this level is easy. Janna Larson, an Arizona family historian with Genealogy One-on-One, says, “Especially with children, I feel interviewing older relatives about their history would be the best beginning.” Start with the basics: ask grandparents where they grew up, how they met, what they remember about their childhoods. “I suggest taking a very broad approach,” advises Mari Margaret McLean, Ph.D., of Tree Hugger, an Ohio-based genealogy consultation and research service. “Ask someone to tell a story from their past, or ask them what it was like to live through WWII.” To that end, McLean recommends using old photos to help interviewees recall memories. Most importantly, she emphasizes the importance of keeping the interview as informal as possible and making sure that older relatives don’t feel hounded for specifics if their recollection is a bit hazy—after all, reminders of their failing memory may be upsetting to the more senior members of your family. Interview questions should focus less on names and dates and more on the things that make our forebears real people.
If you find some particularly interesting branches in your family tree, interviews can lead to more in-depth research: “If the older relatives then know about some interesting, famous or infamous ancestors, the children can then do some research to find out more,” Larson says. The USGenWeb Kidz Project is a great web site designed with children in mind, and will help you get started with more advanced research.
One of the easiest ways to make connections between people and events of the past is to create a timeline. On a legal-sized piece of paper, draw a line that represents the life of any chosen ancestor. On the top, help your children research and plot key dates in history. On the bottom, plot personal dates in the life of that relative. Creating a timeline puts history in perspective for your family. To know that your great-grandparents married in 1941 is nice; to see that they married three days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor makes family history come alive. Consider dressing up the timeline with pictures of family and historical events. If you create a timeline for a family member who is still living, it can even make a wonderful gift.