Last year there was an article in the New York Times citing a connection between children who knew something of their family’s history and their self-esteem and control over their own lives. Those who knew something of their ancestry responded better to difficult times, had a sense of self-worth and they also felt better about their families and the way they functioned.
Whoohoo! I now have free license to continue sharing my family history discoveries and stories with my family. Rolling eyes mean nothing. After all, it’s for their own good. Happy dance!
But about those rolling eyes, isn’t there something we can do about that?
Speaking as a genealogist who was indoctrinated early on, I am willing to bet there is. Will the kids turn into diehard family history junkies like us? Maybe. Maybe not.
But our legacy, and the sense that things in the past are important and have meaning, is much more likely to be imparted to them if we try. And as the Times article suggests, they will probably be the better for it. That’s important. So how do we stir their interest?
When my daughter was little, we used to go for walks at a nearby veterans memorial. The path wove through beautiful gardens and exhibits that guided us chronologically through U.S. conflicts. At each one, I’d stop and tell her about the people in our family, noting who was involved in the various conflicts, and what it was like for the people at home. On one visit, she was especially interested in the stories of World War II on the home front and when we got home I was able to show her the ration books of the great-grand-aunt who she’s named after. That record brought that story to life. She suddenly had a connection to history and to Madelon. So when you’re making plans for the summer, do a little research and try to schedule a visit to a place where you can connect to your family story. With a little foresight in choosing a destination, you can steer the conversation effortlessly.
A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words
Kids love pictures. Especially embarrassing pictures of you in dorky clothes that your mother made you wear. (It’s ok, you can tell them that. They don’t have to know it was your favorite outfit.) Start with those. You can use the opportunity to laugh with them at the styles, the funny faces, and move from there to who looks like who in the family. Take it a step further and make it a guessing game. Who is this person in the carte de visite related to? Mom or Dad, Grandma or Grandpa? Is that smile the same one you see on Mom’s face in this other old picture?
For older children, you might even challenge them to guess the year based on the clothing, using old photographs on the Internet as a tool. If they’re interested, pull out your Ancestry.com mobile app and show how they are connected.
Back in the day when I was about 12, we didn’t have Internet, cell phones or even cable TV. The really cool technology in our house was a microfilm reader in the basement. Yes, you read that right. My mom was hardcore. And desperate. She was looking for names like Kelly, Dennis, Miller, and Tobin in Brooklyn, New York, in the days before censuses were indexed. So she would borrow the census microfilms from the library and we would troll through those films looking for familiar names. My sisters and I were her hired help, paid a quarter a name to write up each family name we found on index cards, along with the location on the film. I am convinced that it was that thrill of finding someone we were relating to that first hooked me on family history. I felt like I had traveled in time.
I’m not suggesting you rent a microfilm reader, but kids like computers and smartphones. Ancestry.com is on computers and smartphones. See who can find the most records on a person in your family tree. Maybe they’ll even find that unfindable record you’ve been searching for. Sometimes it just takes a fresh perspective. And if they make a find, all the better. It’s all part of your diabolical plot to reel them in.
My mom is a master storyteller when it comes to children. She had an interesting childhood, spending her summers in Mexico and winters attending school in Texas. When her grandchildren were young, she’d have them in stitches telling them about the monkey in the restaurant in Mexico that stole her new scarf and then taunted her with it. That would lead to stories of how they got to the mines where her uncle worked in Mexico, making part of the trip by burro. And of how she came to be living with her aunt and uncle. And of the brothers and sisters she finally met in Brooklyn when she was eleven. And of the cousins she grew up with who used to play catch with her when they were home from the service. (And by “catch with her” I mean she was the ball.)
It doesn’t have to be an exotic story to get you started. Something funny to pique their interest is wonderful. Even the most mundane stories can be fun if you ham it up. I always loved hearing the story of my grandma and her brother deciding one day to spread soap flakes and water to the floor and using towels to ice skate around the room instead of using more traditional floor mopping equipment. What were they doing home alone? Their mom had died when they were young and their dad was at work. Who looked after them? Mrs. Glass. (By the way, I was able to identify them in the 1910 census with the help of Mrs. Glass next door. Love Mrs. Glass.)
The stories are probably the most engaging way to stimulate an interest in the past. It’s why we pore over every record we find looking for the insights they can provide, the stories they have to tell. Every single one of my mom’s grandchildren will remember, thanks in part to that monkey, where Nana was from, what her childhood was like, and the people she was surrounded by. They’ll know that they’re connected to all that. That’s important.
Now it’s your turn. What’s your favorite strategy for getting kids and young people interested in family history? Share it with us in the comments or on our Facebook page.
About Juliana Smith
Juliana Szucs Smith has been working for Ancestry.com for more than 16 years. She began her family history journey trolling through microfilms with her mother at the age of 11. She has written many articles for online and print genealogical publications and wrote the "Computers and Technology" chapter of The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Juliana holds a certificate from Boston University's Online Genealogical Research Program, and is currently on the clock working towards certification from the Board for Certification of Genealogists.