Involving Children in the Exploration of Family History

As I have delved more into my own genealogical history, I have thought about how to involve the younger generation, especially my children, in the process. One of the most valuable gifts we can give our children is an understanding of and appreciation for their ancestry and history. Encouraging the next generation to be curious about their own lineage and become engaged in the exploration of their ancestors will not only help to perpetuate the familial lines you have already discovered, but can also transform history into a vibrant learning experience with which children can connect.  But how do we involve children in genealogy in a broader context? What kinds of activities can inter-generational members experience together to help cultivate an interest in their shared history?

For younger children, engaging in creative and interactive activities is a great vehicle to inspire interest. For example, assembling a treasure box with artifacts from your family’s past can encourage conversations about family history. You can collect items such as pictures, newspaper articles and memorabilia and use them to learn about particular family members.  Creating a physical family tree is another option for a collaborative family project.  This can become a long term endeavor where children add on branches and lines over the course of many months as they uncover more information. It is not necessary to focus on obtaining detailed data for each family member.  Rather, the act of visually charting the relationships and chronological history will help to create a “big picture,” thereby giving children a glimpse into their lineage and their ancestors’ place in history.

A wonderful way to involve older children or teenagers in genealogy is by having them interview family members.  Open ended questions are the best way to encourage the interviewee to explore personal stories rather than just reciting factual information.  The interviewer should ideally begin with the oldest living relatives, but should not stop there.  Interviewing younger members of the family who are just one generation older, or relatives not in direct descent lines, can often clarify and add color to older narratives.  Many children will also have considerable technological knowledge which is useful in preserving these oral histories.  They can scan old photos and create online scrapbooks.  They can also take photographs of relatives and important documents and artifacts with a digital camera and make these images available for others in the family to view online.

One of the most exciting aspects of genealogy is its ability to make history come alive, especially for children. Recently I heard a talk by genealogy writer, AJ Jacobs.  He commented that his search for far-flung ancestors led to the discovery that Albert Einstein was a remote relative.  He marveled at the reaction of his son, who enthusiastically began learning everything he could about Einstein’s life.  The perception of genetic closeness often propels us, even children, to want to form connections to that individual and make new discoveries.  And with the possibilities afforded by technology, children in this generation can take a leading role in learning about, sharing and preserving their families’ ancestral history.

Louisa Kalish

Louisa Kalish is a lawyer and a freelance writer for online legal and general interest publications. She became interested in genealogy during a brief stint in pro bono family law. While not engaged in her writing and legal pursuits, she is an active volunteer in several charitable organizations and heads the parenting organization at her children's school. She resides in New Jersey with her husband and three children.

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