Why Genealogy is Important for Children

Maureen Taylor*

There are plenty of reasons why adults should be curious about family history, but what about children? Why should adults teach children about genealogy? I’m sure you have a few answers of your own. My interest in genealogy and history began when I was about nine. At that point, there were no books written on the subject for kids. Instead I worked my way through Gilbert Doane’s, In Search of Your Ancestors and followed his advice for about a year. It was a college history assignment that rekindled my interest in the topic and led to my working in the field. That’s when I discovered that family history is a great way to teach children history-local, national and international. Over the years, as I worked with school groups, it became apparent there was still a lack of resources for children interested in genealogy.

When writing, Through the Eyes of Your Ancestors (Houghton Mifflin 1999), I interviewed professional genealogists and friends to find out about their childhood experiences with genealogy. They told me two things. First, that they found family history fascinating as children but didn’t know how to go further with it, and second, that their grandparents played a pivotal role in their future as genealogists.

I bet many of you first became interested in the topic as children, but waited until you were adults before you started researching those names. Think of all the interviews you could’ve have conducted with relatives that are no longer alive. My grandmother never talked about her family, and I’ve been stuck on her parents for decades. If only I’d known what to ask. Perhaps that brick wall wouldn’t exist.

So why get children involved with family history, and how do you do it? Let me give you a few reasons and suggestions:  

Every day in news we hear about children gone astray because they
feel disconnected to their family and the world. As genealogists you know that families are endlessly fascinating. By filling in the blanks on the charts you discover that while all families are unique, researching your family is a personal detective story. You discover characteristics about yourself that you have in common with an earlier ancestor. For example, a musically talented child discovers that his great-grandfather played an instrument and sang in the church choir.

The news media also focuses attention on how different families are today than in past generations. As a genealogist I object. The variations in today’s households are not that different than in previous centuries although they are talked about more.

For adoptees, research can help them connect to their adoptive family. This also means creating a sense of family by discussing the adoption process as well as why they were adopted (in age appropriate language), how you selected their names and teaching them about their heritage. If they know their birth name, adopted children can also research their birth family. Of course there are lots of different adoption stories, so think about how to establish that link using their history.

At home, children need to have a sense of history. It’s part of
understanding who they are. This includes their own personal history as well as how world history influenced family decisions. Talk about what you did when you were their age, finding a common element. My children can’t believe that their grandparent’s lived without modern “necessities.” This is basic history. When was television invented and when did you first experience it? What was your town like a few years ago or a century ago?  

Ask them to keep a diary, write a memoir, take pictures, or create a scrapbook. The final format is whatever they would like to produce based on their own creativity. It could even be a comparison of what their life is like compared to another family member’s life at their age.

History surrounds kids, but they don’t think about it. They primarily live in the present. In my kid’s case, they live for the moment without thought of what came before so I try to incorporate history into everyday life through ordinary tasks. It’s difficult to talk about history without boring children and the same is true for family history. My son loves sports, but hates all the protective equipment. It only takes a moment to insert a comment about the lack of shin pads and helmets when I was a kid to get his attention. Instead of waiting for him to ask another question, I’ll ponder out loud, “I wonder what {insert the sport} was like when Grandpa was a kid. I like to think of genealogy as the history of everyone in the family even pets. No detail is too small to mention. After all, the goal is keep kids a part of the family and create a future generation of genealogists.  

There are common threads that reappear in every generation besides
birth, marriage, and death. Ask any student how many times they’ve moved in their lifetime and what the readjustment was like and you have a context for mentioning immigration. Many children move at least once during their school years. The local high school uses census documents to teach about immigration and assimilation. Unless the children are immigrants, moving is something they can relate to. War is another current that runs throughout family history. What is your family’s experience during wartime, the current one and past ones? Older children can interview people, research documents and write about their findings. This is part of what we do as genealogists. By teaching kids family history one step at a time, you have a chance of giving them a lifetime hobby.

Have I convinced you yet that it’s important to introduce children to
family history? I hope so. If not, think about all the time you’ve spent accumulating documents, photographs, and artifacts from your family. Now, whom are you going to leave all that material to? Once you get a child curious about their family history and keep them interested you’ve found someone who’s going to take care of your efforts. By the time I learned enough about family history, countless documents were lost, thrown out when someone died. Teaching children about family history, not only lets you work on an activity together it lets them experience genealogy first hand by working with various family members. As they save their heritage it builds a sense of responsibility. I’ve spoken with many genealogists who despair over the lack of relatives interested in their hobby. I’m basically a stubborn person; I just keep trying different methods to reach out to kids until I find something that works. You can too.

Here’s a pet peeve. Why don’t more genealogical societies offer
special memberships and programming for children? By educating a younger generation about family history you not only encourage them to become adult members but reach out to their parent’s as well. The Boy Scouts have a genealogy badge, but once those boys start researching their history, where else can they go? Someday, a genealogical organization will see that their future is with the children. After all, not only are they potential members, but donors as well.  

On a related topic, wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a genealogy magazine for kids full of interesting projects, activities, and first-person stories? The projected market for these subscriptions and publications are not only children aged nine and up, but all the teachers that include family history in their classroom. In many states, genealogy is taught as part of the curriculum on understanding similarities and as well as social studies. Teachers use it in a variety of ways including math assignments, English, history and art. There is a way to use it to teach almost every subject, even science now that genetics is being studied.  Genealogical societies shouldn’t underestimate the need for memberships directed at children; it’s a huge potential market.

I know that it’s been said before, but investing in children is an investment in our future. I don’t know who said it or why, but the same thought applies to genealogy. By spending time helping kids understand family history, all of us benefit. A little less history is lost and you’ve given them a sense of how the world works.

I would love to hear from more people who started their family history research as children.  Please send me an email and let me know more about it.

*Maureen A. Taylor, a contributing editor to Family Tree Magazine, is the author of Preserving Your Family Photographs (Betterway 2001) and Uncovering Your Ancestry Through Family Photographs (Betterway 2000) as well as a guide to family history for kids, Through the Eyes of Your Ancestors (Houghton Mifflin, 1999). Her columns appear in New England Ancestors, and Ancestry and Family Tree magazines. Her numerous television and radio appearances include The ViewDIY:Scrapbooking, and MSNBC.

E-gen admin note: As this article was posted years after it first appeared, it may no longer be available online. As well, her publications and appearances are many more that listed above. Click on her website or Google her name and subject for the latest.

Last revised 3/31/21

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.