The availability of digital records on genealogical websites makes researching easier than ever. Even better, though, is reaching out to older relatives, who can provide valuable information about specific family members, says Mara Fein, a Los Angeles-based professional genealogist. And, of course, for a few lucky kids, their great-grandparents are still around to talk to as well.
“Getting to know your family through genealogical research can provide insight into why someone chose to be a doctor or a lawyer, or why they love the theater so much,” says Fein. “It allows (children) to see the through-line that links people together and may shed insight into why they are the way they are.”
A child’s simple question about where relatives were during important historical events or how a holiday was celebrated in an earlier era can lead to those “that reminds me of the time” stories.
Fein also suggests asking relatives where they lived growing up, where their parents were born, if they have documents of weddings or births, the names of brothers and sisters, and their mothers’ maiden names as well. Answers to such specific questions can provide details that will enhance online research.
For Sarah Thomas, 16, a school project undertaken when she was 15 netted details of how her ancestors came to the United States, what their lives were like in Spain and Puerto Rico, and even information about family ties to the Crusades and the family coat of arms.
“I learned where I came from (and) about the people who made it possible for me to actually exist,” Thomas says. “For example, my great-grandfather was sent to live in Puerto Rico from Spain so he wouldn’t have to join Spain’s military like his older brothers who had died in action.”
Kids can use the information they obtain to research public documents available on genealogical websites such as FamilySearch.org, Ancestry.com and Heritage Quest (heritagequestonline.com). These sites include tips on conducting research, as well as access to U.S. Census, naturalization, immigration, birth, death, marriage and military records.
Getting children involved
As a child accumulates information about his or her family, here are a few ways to enrich the search, from Ancestry.com:
Record an oral history as relatives recount stories about their own life experiences. Websites such as Ancestry.com have audio-recording features, but many point-and-shoot cameras and smartphones have video capability too.
Preserve family treasures: Encourage children to look at old family photos with a grandparent or other relative and ask questions about the people and places in the photos. Together, they can scan photos and historical documents and attach them to specific people in your family tree.
Ask about a family recipe that has been passed down through the generations. Add recipes with family photos to create a family recipe book.