Of all the gifts that grandparents can give their grandchildren, few are grander than a sense of where they fit in to the history of their family.
Why do I say that? Well, who is better positioned than grandparents to be the family griots, a term for those great African storytellers, whose job it is to be a repository of tribal history, traditions, and culture and pass them on to future generations?
But this family storytelling idea is more than just a wonderful bonding custom; it has a proven basis in scientific fact.
Researchers at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia have found that children who know a lot about their families have higher self-esteem than those who only know a little. In addition, those children aware of family history are more likely to feel in control of their own lives.
Passing on Your Family History Personally
Now, while my wife and I both knew the importance of family history when we got married 43 years ago, we were really just too busy getting through the day to come up with an organized plan to pass that information on to our only son or his cousins.
But, of course, by the time our first grandchild arrived 8 years ago, we were in a much different situation.
Not surprisingly, Judy, being an artist and manager of an art gallery, chose a visual approach to letting our granddaughter, and then our grandson, be introduced to their personal past.
She framed dozens and dozens of pictures of relatives and family events and then created a portrait gallery on the long stairwell wall leading to our 3rd floor. When our grandchildren visited, she would carry them one at a time up the stairs, pausing to point out who some of these people were, what they did, and then answering any questions from Audrey and Owen.
As a writer and a teacher, I chose a different, more sedentary method. When our son was old enough to understand the alphabet, I would write letters on his back when I put him to bed after story time.
He would have to guess the letters. Later, I broadened that idea to have him try to tactilely feel out simple words I would write.
With my grandchildren, I expanded that technique to use the back-written words to introduce a family background story that I would then tell them, often tailoring that tale to something they had asked about or encountered during the day.
Of course, these are just 2 ideas. There are almost as many ways to tell family stories to grandkids as there are grandparents to tell them. Here are some other suggestions:
Visual Ways of Family Storytelling
- Make a family photo album and share it with your grandkids.
- If you are technologically savvy, create a family history picture compendium online. Perhaps you can even get some computer tips from your grandchildren for this one. Nothing says younger ones can’t teach older ones.
- Fill in a family calendar with important dates for your family and discuss it periodically (weekly, monthly, seasonally, etc.)
- If your grandchildren are like ours, they love memory matching card games. Create a set of matching cards using pictures of family members and/or events and play it with your grandchildren. You can assign bonus points if they recount facts about the pictures on the cards.
- If you have easy access to a number of family burial sites, make tombstone rubbings and use them to prompt directed family discussions. This is a good way to introduce the ideas of death and dying when your grandchildren are ready for such a talk.
Written Ways of Sharing Family History
- Make a Me – My Parents – My Grandparents Chart. If you’re not familiar with this fun learning exercise, here is an example of how it works. Create a 4-column chart. At the horizontal top of columns 2, 3, and 4 places the designations Me, Parents, Grandparents. Working vertically down, assign subjects for column 1 such as – at age 6 my favorite food, TV program, book, activity, sport, etc. The possibilities are endless. Use the answers to discuss personal history and cultural changes.
- If you have access to old handwritten letters or diaries, transcribe some of the entries and read them with your grandchildren. This may get them interested in writing their own letters, diaries, or journals.
- Compose a short Focused Memoir Chapter. Pick one event from your life and write it up as if it was going to be part of your overall autobiography or memoir and share it. You can write about something as routine as spending a spring day in the park or as historic as watching the first man walk on the moon.
- Create an abbreviated written version of your Family’s Food Heritage. Seek out favorite recipes from family members and write them down. Add a short bio piece with each recipe. If you want a more hands on approach, make some of the simple recipes with your grandchildren.
- Find online newspaper clips of historic events in your lifetime. Write down your feelings and reactions to those events. Create a scrapbook or online blog to share all of this with your grandkids.
Extending Learning About Your Family History
If your grandchildren express a real interest in family history, here are 2 involved collaborative projects you can enjoy together:
- Plan and undertake a Family History Field Trip. For example, if Judy and I were to take such a trip with our grandchildren, we would go back to the small New Jersey community of Bridgeton, where we were born and lived for 59 years. You could even record the entire adventure with a video camera or your cell phone and then have your own family documentary episode.
- Create a Family Museum Exhibit of Important Ancestral Artifacts. For example, if we were going to create The Price Family Ancestral Museum, we would need artifacts from my career as a writer and an educator; Judy’s art years, my Dad’s military, dry cleaning plant operator, and professional gambling years; my Mom’s 50 years as a school teacher; Judy’s Dad’s career in glass manufacturing; and her Mom’s years as a homemaker and retail sales clerk.
History, whether it is that of a small farm family or a massive nation state, is really the personal stories of how people faced the challenges and changes in a specific period of time
Speaking of the challenges of our time, Dr. Linda Fried, dean of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University in New York City says: “The elderly are the only increasing natural resource in the world”.
So hey there, fellow resources, I think a great way to begin offering our advantages to the world around us is to share what we know about our own family and times with our grandchildren.
I hope you agree.
I also hope to meet you somewhere out there on our intersecting family history trails. We have so much to offer, not only to our own families, but to each other.