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Exploring Genealogy with Kids

Researching their genealogy can help kids build confidence



Each Thanksgiving my mother told the same story. It was after midnight on the family’s Pennsylvania farm one Saturday in February. Her youngest brother spoke softly but firmly as he tried to rouse his eldest sister. “KAAATHHHY!” he hissed as he pushed her shoulder forward and back until her eyes cautiously opened. “I need your help,” he whispered.

My mother loves to help, and this story always remains one of her fondest memories. Her baby brother, then 6 years old, now a successful attorney, had snuck downstairs into the garage to serve himself a bowl of ice cream. In the dark he had not noticed the 13-by-9-inch casserole dish sitting on top of the family’s garage freezer. Once it slid off and crashed behind the large appliance with contents smearing down the wall, he recalled how my grandmother had asked my mom to make and store the side dish in the 30-degree garage in preparation for tomorrow’s dinner with my great-grandparents. Once he cleaned up his mess, he knew he needed my mom’s help because he had no idea how to make - or remake - Jello.

When I was very young, I remember being fascinated by that story as I imagined my mother and uncle living in my grandparents’ farmhouse as small children, siblings, like me and my sister. As I grew into a teenager I became annoyed at the repetition of the story every holiday, perhaps even rolling my eyes at its retelling, but I was also secretly grateful to have that connection to these people - aunts, uncles, cousins - sitting around the dinner table each holiday together. And as I grew into an adult, I wanted to know more. Who else had lived in that farmhouse? It had been in our family since 1827. What other stories were there to know?

“The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their sense of self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families function.” 

Where to Begin?

Holiday gatherings provide an excellent opportunity for children of all ages to learn more about their family’s history and genealogy. Family stories flow freely as the generations reminisce about growing up together. Questions bounce across the room between generations as younger children try to understand the world without cell service and Netflix and older generations strive to retain details from the family’s eldest members who may not be with them at next year’s gathering. With a little planning, this year’s family gatherings can begin the collection, documentation and excitement about a family’s history and genealogy.

Knowing family history can offer identity and comfort to children and teens as they understand from where they came. These ROOTS offer a sense of security and belonging as each child’s family story is uniquely his or her own and may include immigration, tragedy, triumph and ingenuity. Stories from family history can give children ideas about how they can overcome life’s challenges while they celebrate the diversity of past generations and their own uniqueness and similarities to family members. Researchers from Emory University report, “The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their sense of self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families function.”

But where to begin? “Genealogy” sounds like a huge research project littered with dead-ends and unknowns. Family history is a broader term that includes immediate relatives and those who lived long ago. Several books on genealogy compare the quest to uncovering a mystery, one clue at a time.

To begin, Liz Walker of the Tulsa City-County Library Genealogy Center suggests reading age appropriate books on the topic of family, of which the library has several. Children will learn terms like aunt, uncle, grandparent and cousin (first and twice-removed), in advance of the holiday gatherings to help make sure relational connections are understood. Together parents and children can begin to document what is known.

The central tool to get started with a family’s genealogy is to create a family tree chart. Smaller children can identify immediate family members with whom they have regular interaction, while older children can begin to build more complicated genealogical charts going back several generations, complete with holes and unknown facts, to be filled in later. The family tree chart serves as a roadmap by documenting four key elements of each family member: full name, birth date and location, marriage date(s) and location(s), and death date and location. A printable version is available on the TCCL Genealogy Center’s website or by visiting the Hardesty Regional Library Branch. Families can also create their own family tree chart to accommodate their unique family situation as traditional family tree charts do not typically account for divorce, remarriage, step- or half-siblings, etc. Genealogy websites like ancestry.com and familysearch.org offer online versions of family tree charts that enable users to share with other known (and unknown) family members to help fill-in the blanks.

As the people, places and dates fall into place on a family tree chart, online resources with searchable records have hastened the process of finding missing details in recent years. The Tulsa City-County Library Genealogy Center offers several such databases. The library edition of ancestry.com is available in all TCCL branches across the region. While more specific resources like American Ancestors and fold3 are only available on desktop computers at the Hardesty Regional Library, databases continue to grow as more documents are transferred to digital. Genealogy Center librarians can assist in identifying which resources are available to help piece together a family’s story.

The Dash Between the Dates

To gain a real connection with family history, genealogy must go beyond nouns (names, dates, and places) and include the verbs and adjectives of each family member’s life. Broken Arrow resident Cathleen Hull became interested in family history and genealogy over 20 years ago, after discovering how understanding family origins can build stronger families. She refers to the family tree chart as the “skeleton.”

But Hull said the real fun comes from the “dash between the dates; the stories of the experiences and lives of those long [and maybe not so long] dead ancestors. There are important values and lessons that can be learned from their lives.”

Stories come from the natural curiosity of children by asking questions such as: How did they live? What was happening during their life? What did she and her friends like to do when she was my age? Why did he decide to study that in school?

Holiday gatherings offer the perfect opportunity to save some current oral history. Families can encourage the kids to use smartphones to record older family members talking about their lives as youth. Here are several prompts to get them started: What is your earliest memory? Why did you decide to become a (farmer, doctor, or mechanic)? Who were your best friends when you were my age? What did you and your best friends do for fun?

Researchers have found that understanding one’s own family history can make a person more open to learning about the journeys of others. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz tapped this concept in his first children’s book, “Islandborn,” released earlier this year. In it he tells the story of Lola, an elementary-aged girl living in an American city, who receives an assignment to share information about her country of origin. Lola, who emigrated to the United States at age 3 and does not remember her birthplace, asks her grandmother and elder neighbors to tell her stories of their shared heritage. These interviews lead Lola to create a beautiful drawing of her heritage, eliciting a feeling of belonging to the island, so she becomes less worried about how her story compares with her peers.

“Just because you don’t remember, doesn’t mean it’s not in you.” 

Details can become sparse as families move backward on their family tree chart. For those relatives long gone, historical databases available at the TCCL and physical documents available through county court houses become more and more important to discover details such as land purchases, relocations, and newspaper articles directly related to a specific ancestor. Families with children can also turn to historical fiction and nonfiction books and movies to gain an understanding of what life was like during the time of an ancestor. Using the family tree chart, parents can search for books and movies that take place during the time and location of an ancestor. Perhaps the chart has revealed that a family is related to an American Revolutionary captain, a farmer during the Dust Bowl, or a slave. Local librarians can assist in identifying age-appropriate books and movies that take place in that time period. Reading and watching these stories can stimulate additional questions to consider as they research their family’s history.

Each family must decide how best to document and pursue their family history or genealogy. No two genealogies are the same, which researchers believe is why valuing family history can strengthen each child’s sense of self-worth. A resource on family history from the Clemson Extension Cooperative states that details of a family's story can increase communication between family members, create a stronger sense of worth and belonging among individuals and establish a deeper sense of appreciation for individuality and diversity. As Lola’s grandmother tells her, “Just because you don’t remember, doesn’t mean it’s not in you.”

Getting Kids interested in Family History and Genealogy

Toddler/Preschool:

  • Create a family photo album using a soft-sided photo book shell (available online or at a local baby store), print photos of each person in the family’s tree chart, label with their role (e.g. grandma, grandpa, great-grandma, great-grandpa, aunt, uncle) related to that child’s story.
  • Visit the local library and read books about family; discuss the various types of families that exist.
  • Draw a family tree chart and post in the child’s room complete with photos and names of each person in that child’s family.

Elementary-age children:

  • Interview grandparents or older family members to learn what it was like when he or she was the child’s age.
  • Draw and color a collage based on family stories, like Lola in Junot Diaz’s new book, “Islandborn.”
  • Research a family member who lived during a specific time period to learn about what it was like to live during the Great Depression, World War II, or American Revolution.
  • Create an “ancestor” dress up box with clothes and accessories so the child can pretend to be his relative during the time she lived.

Middle and High School students:

  • Use a smart phone or other technology available to document the oral history of a family member, like stories of Grandpa when he was young; the audio file can be added to a family’s tree chart on sites like familysearch.org or ancestry.com or saved and shared via YouTube.
  • Contribute to the global genealogy community by visiting area or family cemeteries to document graves using the app Billiongraves, which creates a geotag on the location of the grave site so other users can find the location and use the information visible on the headstone.
  • Write and illustrate (using drawings or photographs) a story from the family history and publish copies using Shutterfly, Snapfish, or customboardbooks.com  to share with other family members.

Choose a family member from the family tree chart and do a school research project on life during that time period and location; share the finished project with other family members.


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