Generation Next

This article originally appeared in Ancestry Magazine, March-April 2007.

When I ask members of the local scout troop if anybody has his Genealogy Merit Badge, I get groans and complaints. “Dude, that took so long” seems to be the general consensus. But when I ask what they found out, the tone changes. Riley learned how his family came over from Sweden and says that asking questions “makes your family more interesting. It was sweet.” Anderson had great-grandparents who came from Sweden, too, and thought it was “cool learning what they went through.” Vince was struck by religious traditions carried on for generations in his family: “If they thought it was important, it influences you.”

Kids from New Orleans to Saskatchewan attend summer genealogy camps to track down their ancestors. Teens in San Francisco’s Chinatown give alleyway tours and discover “there’s history in every brick.” Fourth graders in New York City turn oral interviews into picture books. Family history has plenty to teach and offer children and teens—research skills, life lessons, a sense of self, of pride, and heritage. And kids who meet their family history head-on discover just what Vince did: it influences you.

Building Family Strengths

The researchers who went looking for the sources of strength that helped sustain families in South Carolina after Hurricane Hugo and the Susan Smith tragedy learned some of the same things that Vince did. They uncovered a top 10 list for healthy families that included traits such as communication, self-esteem, humor, resiliency, contentment. One strength, however, “kind of surprised us,” says Dr. Deborah Thomason of Clemson University—strong families have a strong sense of family history.

“We found it was a way to capitalize on the other nine strengths,” says Thomason. If you’re talking about family history, you’re communicating. The time you spend together while you’re sharing builds unity. Looking back at how family members overcame struggles such as the Great Depression can lead to optimism. In fact, Thomason says that family history “formed an important theme in developing these 10 strengths: you had to know where you came from to know where you were going.”

Beth Bernstein, program manager for the Samberg Family History Program at the Center for Jewish History, sees the program’s teenage participants forging new relationships with family members because of their research. The program accepts 45 high school Fellows into its four-week summer program to explore Jewish history and each Fellow’s personal family history. “A lot of [the teens] have said that they feel more connected to their older relatives and appreciate what they have been through,” says Bernstein. “Every new piece they find … they’re on the phone with their parents and grandparents.” One boy told Bernstein he formerly wanted to “melt into the ground” when older relatives started telling their stories. “Now he hangs on every word.”

Piquing Those Interests

Ira Wolfman, author of Do People Grow on Family Trees and Climbing Your Family Tree, notes that “kids live in the NOW and often are not at all interested in the past.” A trick to getting kids interested in people who lived decades before can mean approaching the past through concepts that interest the teen today.

Tina Sansone, a Genealogy Merit Badge counselor in Tennessee agrees, noting, “the first thing they want to know is if their ancestor was in the war or someone famous. I try to find at least one thing their ancestor did while they were alive that was special, whether [the ancestor] was a soldier or someone who mined the Kentucky caves.”

To encourage journal writing, says Sansone, “instead of telling them to write like a diary, I relate it to writing stories about their life.” And she plays to their interests in technology as well: “The biggest thrill they get is seeing their ancestors on the census. Most [kids] now are really into the computer, and so they love using it to trace migration patterns on their ancestors.”

The Samberg program takes advantage of their Fellows’ interest in academics: “A lot of teens are academically inclined, they love history, and as they learn about their family history they are learning world history, and their family’s place in it … in a semi-academic environment,” says Bernstein. “And it looks great on a college application. Samberg is advertised as a very experiential program. Maybe one day we’ll learn about food from Poland, how that changed with emigration and then have cooking class.”

Ira Wolfman has found other angles for generating genealogical interest: “One thing that always delights me when I speak with kids about genealogy is how fascinated they are by the fact that their last names mean something. The idea that your name is not just a rather innocuous sound, but rather may describe your ancestors’ lives—what they did for a living, what they looked like, where they lived, who their father was—is an astonishing one to kids. Every child immediately wants to know what his or her name means.”

A Place in History

Wolfman reminds everyone that “your ancestors are a part of the history of the world.” Knowing where they came from can give kids, and their ancestors, an important place and a role in history.

Says Wolfman, “I also think the discovery of who our ancestors are—what they were like, the kind of work that they did, the hardships they faced, the courage they showed—can give kids a larger sense of their own heritage, their own special background. Kids begin to see that their own story—the story of how they got here—is a long and varied one, with so many connections to important historical events. That is a powerful and empowering feeling.”

Bernstein agrees. When she sees a teen find that first piece of information, “a light goes on. No one else is researching their family but them. I think they feel a sense of empowerment from that,” she says. Samberg Fellows use an event from their history as inspiration for a creative project, which they showcase at a graduation exhibition. “There was one teenager who played the violin and found out—I believe it was her great-great-grandfather—was a famous violinist. She learned a piece that he wrote and performed it,” says Bernstein.

Who Am I?

According to a study published in the October 2006 issue of Child Development, positive ethnic identity and pride forged in a family can help teenagers cope with stress.

This, however, isn’t news to Wolfman. “Genealogy isn’t just about ancestors. It’s also about you,” he says. “The best part of genealogy is that it helps people discover their own specialness.”

Wolfman points out that family history reveals that we all have “many families.” Knowing this can be helpful because “kids—teens in particular when they go through their difficult periods—can feel limited by their nuclear families. The fact is, though, that we are a product of multiple families—that the ancestors who played a part in who we are number in the dozens, if not more. We inherit traits from many of them—yet we are also unique combinations. I think this awareness of the diversity of their family—and the fact that [the children] draw on so many traditions and skills—can give children a broader sense of who they are and what they can accomplish.”

When the Past Is Missing

But what happens in those unique situations, say when a child is adopted or just doesn’t know his or her history? Deborah Thomason likes to point out that children can start a family history of their own. “It becomes critical for you to begin your own family history for the future. It doesn’t have to be all in the past,” she says.

While not abandoning the past, Thomason suggests that children ask “What do you want your family history to be? This is what I imagine it could have been or should have been. Start to create a family history.” In other words, remember that you’ll be passing your life on to the next generation.

Sometimes putting a past into perspective simply takes a little creativity. In Climbing Your Family Tree, Wolfman explains how Natasha Bogin, who was adopted from Russia as a child, found the standard pedigree chart with its symmetrical branches simply didn’t reflect her family tree. She created a family flower instead, with a picture of herself in the middle, surrounded by petals that reflected important relationships.

However family history takes shape for the young person, it’s almost guaranteed to have a lingering effect, something that Wolfman sums up with a quote from a former teen family historian, Dafna O’Neill: “‘Doing my genealogy, I also came to see that life offers many choices and that what you make of your life is up to you. I learned much from the experience of my older family members—lessons that have helped to guide my own choices and attitudes.’” Of the many things family history offers young people this may be the most lasting. They find their past, they find something of themselves, and then, as Vince says, “it influences you.”

Primary School Sources

Fourth-grade teacher Monica Edinger assigns her students an immigrant oral history project in which “the children come up with questions as a class, interview someone who came here from elsewhere, transcribe the interview, craft it into a story, and make a picture book of it.” The students may choose to interview family members, although it’s not required.

“Last week I had my annual Oral History Celebration where the children present their books to parents and subjects. It is always so moving to listen to the range of stories from caregivers, friends, family members, and others. For instance, one child did the story of a contractor he has become close to who came from Cuba. Several children did grandparents and several others did parents,” says Edinger. “We had people from multiple generations, from all over the world, and with all sorts of experiences. It is always so moving and the children feel justifiably proud for having told these stories.”

But there’s also a utilitarian side to Edinger’s assignment—students who start digging into a family’s history also learn research skills. When Monica Edinger’s students learn about immigration, they use the primary sources on the Library of Congress American Memory website, for which “they need … specialized skills: how to make sense of bibliographical data, how to skim through long oral history transcripts to find what they want, how to look carefully at images, as well as how to use a search engine efficiently and how to save files.”

Inheriting Self

While Lynda Suffridge, Vice President of the National Genealogical Society, notes that family history helps kids “appreciate their heritage,” she also thinks family history is a great hobby to help teenagers come to better know themselves and others. “Teenagers are in a time in their lives when they have a hard time understanding themselves as well as other people,” she says. “Talking with older people about their heritage may help them find themselves sooner.”