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.
Here’s a fun way to use old snapshots and teach your children about their physical heritage. Find two photographs each of 8 people from your family—if possible, one snapshot from their childhood, and one from their adulthood (for younger family members, you could do a baby picture and a picture of them a few years older). Arrange the photographs face down on a table four rows across and four rows down in a square. Have your children play “Go Fish” by flipping over and matching photographs of the people in your family at two different periods in their lives. Now is a great time to talk about family resemblances to the ancestors in the photos—do you or your children have Great Aunt Edna’s eyes, or the Rupp nose? What seems to be the dominant trait in your family? Seeing family pictures helps children feel connected with family members who may be far away, or who they may never have met.
Most of us, unless we are of pure Native American blood, can claim some sort of immigrant ancestry. Your children can chart your family’s journey to the “New World” by making a migration map. You will need: A map of the world, foam or cork backing for the map, push pins in different colors and string to help your children visualize the journey.
To begin, do a little research on your matrilineal and patralineal ancestry (your mother's and father's families) going as far back as their emigration to America—from which country did they come? How did they get to the U.S., and when?
Once you have gathered information about your family, assign each family whose migration story you have gathered a different color push pin. Have your children help you find their countries of origin on the map, and then use push pins to mark their path to where your family is now.
Connect their push pins with string, and your children can imagine the journey their pioneering ancestors had to make for your family to be where they are today. Just think: your family from Scotland who went through Castle Garden, New York, may have push pins spanning the map across the Atlantic; if that family then went West during the 19th century, you might track their progress on the Oregon Trail all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Kids can see that their ancestors have literally come “from sea to shining sea”!
These suggestions will start your child out on the path to discovering their ancestry, and learning about history. But, the beauty of genealogy is that it’s always possible to dig deeper. McLean suggests that one of the ways to further children’s study of their roots is to get them interested in “how [their] roots contribute to [their] individuality.” She believes that good, age-appropriate literature can spark this consideration in children—from Alex Haley’s Roots for older readers to Betsy Hearne’s Seven Brave Women for the younger set, books can ground children not only in the past as their ancestors knew it but show kids how history continues to shape their lives today.