5 keys to telling kids your family history–and why you should

This morning, the long-deceased Moshe Kushlewsky, previously unknown to me, was added to my family tree. This according to an email sent from Geni, a free-ish genealogy website I registered with a few years ago. It seems that I am now related to 500+ souls, living or dead, that are known to Geni. I’m not a big family-tree buff, but a few years ago a friend inspired me to sit my parents down and input the names of all those multiple great aunts and uncles whose progeny and whereabouts I never could keep straight. Since I’m now in Geni’s database, every once in a while I receive a flurry of emails from some “new” distant cousin who has taken on family-mapping as a hobby (usually these relatives are male and newly retired).

Since Mr. Kushlewsky’s morning arrival in my inbox, I’ve been thinking about whether genealogy is the slightest bit relevant to modern family life. Does it, should it, matter to your kids to know that they share a drop of blood with people who lived long ago and perhaps faraway? Like everybody else, except maybe Dick Cheney, I was tickled by the news that he and President Obama are eighth cousins. But don’t such discoveries beg the question? To what extent is ancestry even relevant? To what degree should it influence what you pass on to your children? What if your kids are adopted? Or arrived via donated sperm and/or egg? Or are living with a step-parent and siblings?

Like just about everything else, a focus on genealogy can benefit kids, or it can be a destructive and divisive force. It depends on how you use it. Family stories can spark a love of history, connect children with the past and give context to better understand the world. But family folklore can also separate, propagandize and create distance between people of different backgrounds. So here are some guidelines I’ve picked up–or made up–for passing along family history in a positive and meaningful way. Let me know what you think.

1. Talk about both sides of the family. No playing favorites when it comes to family history. Kids have a right to know about both of their parents’ roots. If you are the family’s history buff make sure you give your partner’s stories equal billing–even if you are the one telling them.

2. Inspire. This is history with a purpose. Recounting family stories is a way of instilling healthy values and helping kids feel a sense of confidence and pride in themselves and compassion for others. So make connections between your children and the positive aspects of family lore. Recount stories that emphasize the courage, honesty, intelligence and kindness of your children’s ancestors. My father used to tell me that I was named after a great-grandmother who had run a little store. Whenever someone poor came in she always gave them food for free. As an adult I can ponder the veracity of this tale–but as a child it certainly made an impression on me. It sent a clear message of what my family admired and respected–and the kind of person they hoped I’d grow up to be.

I would avoid recounting tragic tales to young children. But by the time kids are school-aged (roughly 7 or so) they can be told about ancestors who died young, had sad or scary lives, behaved badly or were victims of injustice or cruelty. Be sure the lesson you impart is helpful and upbeat. I once interviewed legendary psychologist Jerome Kagan, who emphasized the positive power of family myths to instill resiliency in children. He pointed to Frank McCourt’s beautiful memoir Angela’s Ashes, which eloquently details his bleak childhood in an Irish family gutted by poverty, illness and alcoholism. Yet McCourt’s father kept emphasizing to his sons that, despite the hardship, they came from a long line of courageous Irishmen–a legacy that buffered the author in the face of anxiety and shame.

3. No family curses! Absolutely avoid implying that anything in your family background  predetermines a negative outcome for your child. I knew a woman, we’ll call her Ms. Jones, who told all of her kids that their family was cursed–they always got the raw end of the deal. All family stories underlined this truth–great great grandpa invented a machine but someone stole the patent, a neighbor complimented aunt Y’s beautiful eyes and so she ended up needing glasses (!), during the Vietnam War draft, cousin Z pulled a low lottery number and lost his leg in the Mekong Delta.  Whenever one of this woman’s kids faced an unfairness–a B+ that should have been an A, a promotion that went to the other guy–she attributed it to the Jones Family Curse. Did her children grow up to be resilient, well-adjusted and capable of joy? That was rhetorical.

4. Don’t focus on DNA. Especially in this time of blended families, the point of genealogy for kids shouldn’t be whether they share mitochondrial DNA with their triple-great grandmother, but on the stories and values that have shaped your family. If an ancestor was a courageous and passionate abolitionist, you are passing down those qualities whenever you tell your kids his story. He is an example of what people in your family value. All of your children have equal ownership of that history because family is based on mutual love, connection and sacrifice, not chromosomes.

5. Know when to stop.  Please, Mom, not another boring family story!  If their eyes are glazing over, it’s time to move on. You have their entire childhoods to impart family lore, so be strategic in your timing. When your daughter works hard to master a handstand and finally succeeds, maybe that’s the time to tell her, “you remind me so much of my wonderful Aunt Betty! You just keep at it until you succeed. Did I ever tell you about how she won her school’s track meet with a sprained ankle?” If you’re lucky, your kids will sometimes come to you, curious to know about their roots. But when they lose interest, let it alone. I’ll give the last word to my son, who in third grade had to fill out a teacher’s questionnaire about his experiences at the school’s Grandparents Day. “What did you learn today about your grandparents?” it asked. His response: “Enough.”

One thought on “5 keys to telling kids your family history–and why you should

  1. OMG, I just started following this blog, and Nan Silver has a great voice! Her easy reading style is laced with thoughtful insights drawn from her research and a good dose of reality.

    I love this blog!

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