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Discovering Your Roots: Engage With Your Kids in Learning About Your Family History

Both of my daughters are very inquisitive. This is something I’m especially proud of as a mother. I treasure watching them grow and develop their love of learning. There are times that I don’t have answers for all of their questions. I sometimes want to say “I don’t know! It’s just that way!” but then I pause and realize that I want to be able to explain reasoning to them as much as possible — even if it means coming back to answer it later.

For example, a couple of months ago my younger daughter saw an old photograph of my great-grandmother that my mother sent to me. A lot of questions followed this discovery about who this person was and where she lived. As usual, there were many “why” questions. Many of these questions I could not answer because I simply didn’t know.

I remember asking similar questions as I was growing up and I had some answers but not all that I wanted. My family history, going back past my grandparents, is hazy at best. There are several reasons for this. There are a lot of unknowns. For example, my great-grandparents on my father’s side are Italian, but we are unsure as to what part of Italy they came from, and because they died young there are not many records that passed through the generations.

A few weeks ago, my older daughter brought home a homework assignment that included a family tree and interviews with living ancestors. I thoroughly enjoyed working with her on this and the interviews with my parents brought out some interesting details that I never thought to ask, or that I don’t take the time to sit down and talk to my parents about (although I want to). For example, my daughter interviewed my mother about what life was like for her as a second grader. My daughter was fascinated to find out that my mother wore dresses to school and bows in her hair and that she walked to school. Also, she had a mean teacher in second grade which is why her memory is so sharp with details about her school experience during that time.  I also discovered that I was mistaken as to my grandfather’s name. I’ve spelled it wrong my entire life. Thankfully, I learned this while completing the family tree with my daughter.

These might seem like small pieces of conversation, but they are so important to write down. They are memories that help to build the character of a loved one. And these records will last. Also, by doing the interview, my mother and daughter were having a genuine and engaging conversation which is so important for families who live far away from each other. The typical rushed phone call just isn’t enough to feel connected.

In addition to ancestry searches and research, here are a few ideas of projects that you can do with your kids:

1. Create a family journal and include pictures, stories, and small keepsake items that preserve an important memory. Even if it’s something small, you will likely forget as the years go by if you don’t write it down.

2. Gather as many pictures as you can of your ancestors. Create a special photo album and/or a wall gallery of pictures. It’s fun to see your immediate family pictures next to old photographs and to compare them.

3. Create a family tree and see how far you can go and how much information you can include about each ancestor.

4. Create a keepsake box with important items and letters.

5. Put up a map poster and track where ancestors lived.

6. Have your child play the role of a journalist. Come up with questions to ask parents, grandparents, and other family members and have them conduct interviews. You can make a book out of the answers and include pictures.

I have a goal of working through these activities with my kids and making it fun. I believe it is a great way to spend quality time with them, while learning together at the same time.

In what ways have you explored your family history with your children?

mariaMaria is a full-time adoption attorney and mother of three children (Cecilia, Ileana, and Xavier). She was born and raised in Indiana and met her husband, Raul, in college in Ohio. They moved to Boston for graduate school and then to New York City. After having their first daughter, Cecilia, they moved to Greenwich where they still reside today. Maria enjoys running, tennis, travel, and spending time with her family.

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