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Jul 2014  |  By Shannan Younger  |  Comments

Summer Project: Turn Your Kids into Family History Detectives

Genealogy can be a great summer project for kids to strengthen their connection with their grandparents and other relatives.

When children learn about their heritage and family history, they also experience several educational and social benefits in the present. 

Surprising benefits of genealogy

“Genealogy is a great hobby for kids who have a lot of natural curiosity—it blends together history, language arts, science and technology and other subjects in way that's personally meaningful,” says Allison Dolan, publisher of Family Tree Magazine and co-author of “Family Tree Memory Keeper,” a keepsake genealogy book.

Researchers have found that understanding family history can have benefits to a child’s development. Studies show that children who know about their family’s history have high self-esteem and a stronger sense of control over their lives. Those kids were more resilient than those who were not as well versed in the stories of their older relatives.

“Having a sense of connectedness to previous generations seems to inculcate a feeling of responsibility to those who have gone before,” says Marshall P. Duke, Ph.D., and Candler Professor of Psychology at Emory University. “Also, knowing that previous generations faced and overcame problems, as all people do, helps children to realize that they belong to a family group that can and does rise above things. This gives them strength and faith in their own ability to be like their parents and grandparents and other relatives.”

“Genealogy is not enough,” Duke cautions. In addition to knowing to listing relatives, “We must know what these people did.”

That includes family struggles as well as successes.

“We were very surprised to find that stories of bad things are even more important than good things. Knowing that one’s family overcame major troubles and still carried on is one of the major contributors to resilience.”

Getting kids interested

Duke mentions that families telling stories at dinner time is a good way to share information about family tribulations and triumphs, but that family vacations are also important times to share information. “Anyone can tell the stories. They can be taped, digitized, videoed, etc. Grandparents seem to be the most impactful story tellers but if they are not near or gone, others can tell them,” Duke says.

One tactic is to appeal to the "detective" aspect of genealogy: Tracing your family tree is a process of collecting clues to unravel a mystery. Dolan suggests that kids start by reviewing their own birth certificates, as well their parents' birth certificates, marriage records, yearbooks, and other family papers to collect "clues" about their family history. That can also lead to the story telling that Duke says is so important. More family detective information from Family Tree can be found here.

Jeanne Larzalere Bloom, Certified Genealogist and Trustee of the Board for Certification of Genealogists, says, “I know of one family that sat down and compared three generations of high school yearbooks—current high school student, mother, and grandmother. They discussed the fashions, hairdos, school courses, extracurricular activities.”

Field trips are another way to make family history both real and fun for multiple generations.

“Drive by homes that the family lived in, schools and churches that the family attended and places where family members worked,” Bloom suggests. “Visit cemeteries. Take photographs of the buildings and the headstones.” Other field trip destinations include your community’s local history museums, such as the Winnetka Historical Society or the Evanston History Center, as well as the Chicago History Museum, which can provide context for a family’s history.

In addition to listening to the stories, grandparents and grandchildren could work together on a project. “Teens and grandparents might work together on a photo-scanning project, create a slideshow for a special birthday or anniversary, or use an app to record family stories. For older kids, their comfort level with technology can be both an entrée to genealogy and a way to forge a connection with grandparents, who might be more technologically timid,” Dolan says.

Another approach is tying it in to school subjects. “The Civil War becomes more meaningful when you know your ancestor was a Union or Confederate spy,” she adds.

Dolan has worked extensively with Boy Scout troops and said that the adults can get as excited as the kids, and that enthusiasm of relatives “definitely rubbed off on the boys.”

This summer, take advantage of vacations and family gatherings to share some stories. Visit locations where your ancestors have been and give your child a connection to the past. Doing so will help give them an important foundation for the future.  

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