Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Sharing Your Family History with Children and Young Adults

My great-grandmother, Genevieve Murray Smith, with six of her seven children.  My grandfather, Glenn Murray Smith, is at center.  His sisters (L-R): Virginia, baby Joan, Patricia, Shirley and Barbara.  About 1924.

A topic that often seems to arise in conversation with fellow genealogists is how to interest the younger generation in family history.  I can't tell you how many times I've heard someone say, "I'm the only one who's interested.  The kids don't care."  This leads to much hand-wringing about who will take on the role of family archivist and researcher in later years.

As someone who became interested in genealogy in my twenties and who is now trying to share family history with my small children, I offer a ray of hope to those who think there might be no one to carry on their work.  Don't give up on the kids.  They may come around and get interested when they're older.  Leave crumbs so they can find and take up your work later.  Here are my humble suggestions on how to do just that.

1. Write It All Down
Family trees are great, and absolutely necessary, but stories are even better.  Young people may find a list of names and dates uninteresting, but many will respond to a well-spun story about an ancestor.  Give them something that will spark their curiousity.  I write this blog in part for my younger cousins.  None of them have shown the slightest interest in family history yet, but I'm hopeful they'll reach a point in their lives when they will have questions, and then all of this information will be here for them.  Writing down your genealogical information and stories, in whatever fashion you choose to do so, will preserve enticing details for younger relatives.

2. Share It Now
Are you actively trying to share your family history with members of the younger generations?  If not, do!  Don't fall into the "I have to write a book about the family and then I'll share it" trap.  You don't need to have published an exhaustive volume with every last detail to share what you know.  Write one page about one person.  Attach a photo.  Email it to family members, or put it on Facebook and tag them.  Start small and keep sharing.  The point is to reach out to younger relatives now and, if possible, engage them in an ongoing dialogue about family history.  This kind of interaction is far more likely to interest them than a book that is too easily placed on a shelf and forgotten (if you ever get around to finishing it).

3. Maintain a Close Relationship
It's easier said than done, but try to spend quality time with your younger family members.  If you're the aunt they see once a year and don't really know, you're less likely to connect with them about your interests.  Set up special time with your young relatives and develop a real relationship with them.  They're much more likely to want to hear your stories and entertain your hobbies if they know you well.  I became interested in genealogy due to the close and loving relationship I had with my grandmother.  I don't think I would be so invested in family history without that personal connection to her.

4. Include the Children
I have two small children who are still sometimes shocked to re-discover that their grandparents are my parents, their uncles my brothers.  Their notion of family is continually evolving.  That doesn't mean you can't involve little ones in genealogy.  I've hung old family photos on the wall of our home, and I regularly point out the people in them and tell a story about them.  ("That's great-great grandpa George.  He rode in a motorcycle all over France during the war.")  My friend Sierra takes her young daughters with her when she visits cemeteries and has them do rubbings.  When my son's preschool asked for parent volunteers to share hobbies with the class, I came and talked about family history.  I was surprised to discover how much a group of 4-year olds knew about their families.  One boy even wore a kilt to school and discussed his Scottish roots.  Don't talk over the heads of young children.  Engage them.  You may be surprised what they retain.

5. Organize It Well
If someone is going to take up your work in later years, you need to make this appealing to them and not a burden.  Try not to leave your younger relatives with a garage full of binders and endless paper files.  The next generation does not work like this and they won't have room for all that stuff.  You run a real risk that valuable files will be discarded.  I'm not suggesting anyone go tossing original documents or abandoning a process that works for them, simply asking that you consider the best way to transfer your knowledge to a younger person down the line.  Digitizing your records is likely going to be a part of that journey.  There are many online communities devoted to organizational tactics, like The Organized Genealogist on Facebook, and they offer suggestions and solutions that you may want to consider.  If you are participating in Thomas MacEntee's Genealogy Do-Over, you know that quite a bit of the Do-Over revolves around getting organized.  This is useful not only for you and your research, but in preparing to share your work with other family members.

The kids might not be interested now, but there's a good chance they will be in the future.  I hope that these tips will help you connect with younger family members, share your passion for family history with them, and enable you to leave work they can take up later.

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