Family History as Real History

by Dr. Wayne Lance1

Is the study of history limited to well-known figures like Queen Victoria, George Washington, and Marco Polo? Have you thought about history in terms of your own ancestors? Could the study of your lineage be classified as “real history”? Could your children possibly benefit by digging out little-known facts about Great-grandma?

What Is History?

History—all recorded events of the past; the branch of knowledge that deals systematically with the past; a recording, analyzing, correlating, and explaining of past events (Webster).

While we usually think of history as significant events and knowledge about important people, your family—as ordinary and uneventful as you think it may be—is also part of history. As a matter of fact, your children may become more historically-minded and achieve a better feeling for the context and interrelationship of events by being able to relate history to their own lives. Geography, the study of cultures, and history itself—all take on an added depth of interest and often lead to a sense of adventure as children unravel their own past.

What Is to Be Gained?

We live in a mobile world. Your children may have moved several times in their short lives. Even if they have not experienced many relocations themselves, they have probably seen relatives and friends come and go with regularity. In such a world, it is difficult to acquire a sense of roots, of belonging.

Part of knowing who we are—why we are like we are—is derived from knowledge of our parents, grandparents, and the ancestors who preceded them. Our identity is rooted in the past. And yet many children grow up knowing little about their genealogy.

Children and teens can gain a sense of respect and appreciation for the older generation when they come to realize that when grandparents were young, they were in many ways not so different from children today. The generation gap may be narrowed as children and adults enter into dialogue about the past. Relatives whom your children seldom see or talk with become real people and no longer just strangers in a photograph.

Your children may be surprised to learn that their ancestors came from various ethnic backgrounds and that some fought in wars, made discoveries, and bore what seem to us like impossible hardships. As they learn of the depth of religious conviction of some of their predecessors, children may even gain new real-life heroes of the faith.

A study of your family’s history can become a viable vehicle for learning to ask the right questions, knowing where to search for answers, how to develop a hypothesis—in other words, learning and using research skills. Looking for clues and solving mysteries associated with a missing ancestor can be a challenging and enjoyable adventure.

It is probably important to point out that, though some find it difficult to get interested in ancestors, others can become so enamored with a study of genealogy that they fail to live in the present, or perhaps go off on a tangent that mirrors ancestor worship. Approached correctly, these subtle dangers can be avoided.

Considerations When Living Abroad

The study of your family history should be presented to your children and kept in perspective as a long-term project. Like stamp collecting, there is never an ending point, for when you obtain full information on one generation, the door is open to pursue information about the preceding one. This project can be an individual endeavor for one child, or a cooperative family project.

One way to increase the amount of information coming to your children is to keep your requests high on the list of priorities of your relatives back home. Sometimes relatives are unsure what to write when they correspond with children. (They think your lives are so exciting and theirs so routine that they hesitate to write about everyday happenings.) Merely asking them to answer a few questions, to write about anecdotes in their early years, and to relate memories of their parents and grandparents can lead to some interesting letters/e-mails and a wealth of family history.

Audio recordings provide an excellent means for the older generation to pass on information to children. If you can just get folks to talk naturally in them and to reminisce, these recordings can become storehouses of treasure. Now that I have traveled through southern Kansas, seen the wide-open spaces, and experienced the heat and the cold, I regret the opportunities I missed as a boy to ask my grandmother about her early life there in the 1880s, growing up in what must have been an inhospitable land.

Where to Begin

Begin with the here and now—that is, with what you and your children already know. It is logical as well as developmentally appropriate for children to begin with themselves, then learn about their parents and aunts and uncles, and finally work back to grandparents and others.

A four-generation lineage or ancestor chart provides a visual representation of parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents and helps children see relationships. These charts usually include date and place of birth, date of marriage, and date and place of death.

This is also a good time to begin a family group record on each nuclear family and to begin a notebook with a simple organizational structure for filing records. Missing dates and places act as a stimulus for children to write the appropriate relative for more information.

Where to Look for Information

As suggested above, the place to begin is with the immediate family, then branch out to other living relatives. Incomplete data will lead to the need for further inquiry. Perhaps someone knows of a family Bible with records of births, deaths, and marriages. Grandparents may have an attic full of “artifacts” such as photographs, newspaper clippings, and letters, some of which may prove to be invaluable sources of information.

Unless you are returning to your home country in the near future with an opportunity for your children to do their own searching through Grandma’s attic, it will be necessary to recruit the aid of family members there. Ask them to make copies (photo or handwritten) of relevant information and send them by mail/e-mail. The young genealogist will need to develop a list of questions to guide the co-worker in what to look for. Opportunities for letter writing to cousins, aunts and uncles, and grandparents abound.

Most libraries, even in small communities, contain books, census records, and other documents of value to the genealogist. During those periods when you return to your home country, children can involve themselves in searching for that missing date or event to fill in family information. Obviously this requires advance planning, including a list of the questions to be answered in each of the communities to be visited on the itinerary.

Church records are another source of information about ancestors. I found that a letter to a pastor with questions about my relatives often resulted in new insights into the place religion had in their lives. One pastor not only sent me dates when my great-grand-father was a member of that church, but information about the times he served as an interim pastor almost 100 years ago. Enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope when writing for information to people other than immediate relatives or close friends.

Organizing Information

One of the many skills to be learned and practiced when doing genealogy is how to organize information. Your children, regardless of age, will probably need some help in this area. I have seen a number of would-be genealogists get so bogged down with random notes on slips of paper, stacks of letters with no apparent system of extracting information, and indecipherable attempts to record information on lineage charts, that the whole mess ended up in a box under the bed, and that was the end of it!

Keep your system simple, but have a system for recording information as it is acquired. A loose-leaf notebook with dividers to keep generations and family branches in order is essential. Each nuclear family should have a family group record sheet. I like to use pencil for recording information because I often have to make changes as new information is received. This is a good time to teach children about documenting sources. They will often have to go back to the original document to verify names, dates, or places.

More Than Names and Dates

A good family history is more than just a listing of names, dates, and places. Anecdotes, vignettes, and narratives are what really bring life to the family history book. Your child can ask Grandpa to write a page or two about what it was like when he was the child’s age. Grandma can write what she remembers most about her mother and father, or even about her grandparents. Uncle John can tell about his time as a sailor in the war.

As the family history develops, chapters can be added by your children describing what life was like for their ancestors in specific places at specific periods in history. When it is discovered that an ancestor came from Ireland during the great famine in the mid-1800s, a narrative can be added to bring meaning to this event. What was it like to be a Quaker in England in 1830 when ancestors from the Society of Friends sailed to the shores of America?

At this point in developing a family history, the opportunities for integrating subject matter becomes apparent. Themes and sub-themes can be developed. History, geography, civics, and religion are obvious disciplines for study. Map-making becomes personalized when foreign countries are recognized as home to some ancestor and routes are traced to show how they made it to a new home.

Becoming a Sophisticated Genealogist

One nice feature about writing a family history is that it is never completed and can serve as a life-time hobby. At some later point in your children’s lives, they will see it not as something they are doing just for themselves, but for their own children and—as in my case—for my grandchildren. If your children really get “hooked,” they will begin to search for more sophisticated methods of organizing and presenting information. This is where the computer can be a valuable tool.

Genealogy programs are available for almost every computer. I use Reunion 3.0 with my Macintosh (latest version is Reunion 12. This program allows me to enter data about an individual only once. That person is then automatically linked to his or her parents and children. From this data base, descendant charts, pedigree charts, family group records, family histories, calendars of birthdays, and other presentations can be easily produced. If I later find that I entered an incorrect date or misspelled a name, only one entry needs to be changed. The correct information will appear in any subsequent documents I print out.

Interviewing techniques require another degree of sophistication and can be used to advantage during those periods when the young researcher is visiting the home country. This involves not only how to formulate and ask questions, but how to take notes, use audio recorders, and summarize information.

The skills to be learned from the experiences provided by this project will assist your child in developing research and writing skills so necessary for success in high school and college. This, coupled with the other benefits inherent to the activity, make it worthy of your consideration for inclusion in your curriculum.

Current Resources

Free Family History, Family Tree, and Genealogy Records and Resources from Around the World

Genealogy 101: how to Trace Your Family’s History and Heritage, by Barbara Renich

Genealogy Software Reviews, Ratings & Comparisons

How to Begin Tracing Your Family Tree

Resources for Genealogists using the US National Archives for your family history search

Where to Write for Vital Records. Listing of state offices to contact for birth, death, marriage, and divorce certificates, with guidelines to follow when submitting a request.

Permission is granted to copy, but not for commercial purposes.

  1. Due to the advances in technology since this article was written, a few small parts have been deleted or rewritten to be more current. Studying your family history is still a very important hobby.