Family Adhesive: The Value of Family History in the Homeschool Curriculum
Homeschooling parents would do anything and everything to raise their children to be successful adults. They might read books about how to teach discipline, how to create self-esteem, how to structure a homeschool curriculum, and how to keep balance in family life. They will include lessons on music and dance, sports, art, finance, and many other topics along with the core subjects of science, social studies, math and literature. Money is spent on having the right technology, the right nutrition, the best books, and the latest educational tools. But some homeschool parents miss one of the most basic and foundational tools that can set a child up for success in life—teaching their children about their family’s history.
Academics and Family History
Family history can help a student make a personal connection to a multitude of academic topics. Of course, studying about an ancestor who participated in an historical event creates a sense of reality for history studies. But genealogy envelops a multitude of academic topics. Your family’s past includes lessons in geography, language, social studies, science, religion, culture, art, music, food, etc, etc. Virtually any topic can be found in, and connected to, your family history.
Likewise family history research involves logic, detective skills, library and research skills, writing and communication, spelling, typing, technology and computer skills. Finding out about your family involves organization and the ability to sift and judge information based on its source. Family history is in fact, micro-history and can give children a context for other historical, geographical and cultural knowledge.
Adding your family’s history to your homeschool curriculum can be a rich experience that helps a child explore the world around him/her. It makes the curriculum personal and allows the child to connect with the subjects in a deeply personal way, because it encompasses the events that have transpired to culminate in who that child is today. It tells him/her about the people who came together to create the life s/he has now.
Emotional Health from Family History
But studying your family history together can be so much more than mere academics. Family history is actually a powerful parenting tool that will help you pass down your values to your children, teach them about consequences, and help them grow up into emotionally healthy adults. Studying the span of generations and the extent of the whole life of a person can give a perspective on life that is not found elsewhere. Some people say that family history research is cheaper and more powerful than therapy, but studying your family history together with your children can help keep them from going to therapy altogether.
Every family has good and bad traits that are passed down from generation to generation. If your mother grew up in poverty and fear because of the situations your grandmother faced, which were based on the decisions your great-grandmother made, you may not even know anything about that great-grandmother, but your life is affected by her and you may inadvertently be passing down those character traits into your children. If your father was raised with a strong work ethic because of his hard working parents, who in turn descended from industrious immigrants, you may not know the names or origins of those great-grandparents but their lives affect yours. When you understand where those strengths and weaknesses in your family come from, generational attitudes and character traits can be changed or added to as necessary.
Studies have shown that greater knowledge about family history especially strengthens and empowers youth by creating self-esteem, resilience and what psychologists call “internal locus of control” or the knowledge that you are in charge of your world and can have control over your life. When you know about the trials your ancestors conquered, it creates a sense of strength and an “I can do this, it’s in my DNA” attitude. Studies have also shown that students who think about their family history score higher on intelligence tests. But it doesn’t take a scientific study to show that any youth who learns about how child labor laws affected their ancestor or what outhouses and childhood diseases were like, will have a deeper appreciation for the basic comforts and opportunities that we sometimes take for granted.
As you teach your family about their family history, you become a transitional person in the family, who acts as a guide to point out life lessons and processes the past into a healthy narrative. You can teach resilience and gratitude in the way you tell your family story. Family stories can be great illustrations to teach about consequences of decisions good and bad. And you can help explain why people did what they did and promote a more generous view of the people in your family when necessary.
Stronger Modern Relationships from Family History
Family history also strengthens your modern relationships by creating a team narrative about how your family came to be and who they are. Your family history is something you share only with your own family and no one else can duplicate that experience. Studying your genealogy has a personal, present-day binding effect on modern families. As you work on your family history with your children, they not only learn more about their ancestors, they learn more about you. Your family relationships can become closer as you work on projects together. Learning about your past will give you a chance to work with distant relatives and learn more about them. And family history can be common ground for family members who might appear to share little else in common, but here share a common goal and common experience.
Knowing about your extended family can give you and your children a sense of belonging and being part of a great whole. The life you have now was created in part by the decisions of the family members who came before you—whether they immigrated, married, became educated or had family issues. Learning that there were people who loved you and worked so that their posterity could have a better life, can strengthen your family’s sense of a loving and safe environment. Connecting with relatives—living and not—creates a community for your children, a web of people who care about them. Our children can learn of the love their predecessors had for them through the sacrifices that were made so that they could enjoy the life they have now. And as they do so, they will appreciate the sacrifices their family members are currently making for them as well.
Today’s youth need all the help they can get. Life is becoming increasingly more challenging in the way they need to process information and their view of the world around them. The data and choices our children face every day dwarf that of any generation in the past. Family history can help you connect with your children and connect them to a healthy future. By its very nature, family history binds a family together and gives children a support system. Your family’s narrative can give your children personal heroes to look up to, teach them about life lessons and give them a broad, wise perspective on life.
5 Tips for Learning About Your Family’s History Together
Find a common interest. The best way to connect our youth to their family history is to figure out what their interests are and then introduce them to that aspect of your family history. Family History encompasses everything: Languages, culture, music, science, etc. etc. Look for your child’s favorite topic in your family history and then explore that together. If you have a daughter who is interested in fashion, take a look at your family pictures and find out more about the fashion of your ancestors. If you have a son who is interested in trains, or animals, or sports, find out if any of your ancestors were involved in those pursuits. My son, who loves the latest tech gadgets, found connection with a great-grandfather who was also a tech geek at the turn of the century through an antique amberola machine family heirloom. My daughter, who loves decorating, has helped me find ways to decorate our house with our family history. And my son who loves all things science is exploring DNA connections and family history.
It is never too early to start or too late to start. There is a sweet spot between the ages of 6 and 12. At this time they are old enough to understand the concepts of generational change and still young enough to be firmly attached to their family. Learning about your family history as a pre-teen can create great self-esteem scaffolding for the challenging teen years. But family members can be intrigued by family discoveries at any age. Tell family stories to young children, and look for fun projects to do together with older youth. Discovering your family history together can be the glue that bonds your family at any time.
The best family history transmission is a lifestyle not an event. I grew up in a very family-history-oriented home and I think my family is close now because of it. Our history was just in the air we breathed, the food we ate, on our walls and in our travels. Family history needs to be a simple, integral part of how we are raising the next generation. Mention the stories and life lessons when they come up in daily life. Every little encounter children have with their family history is a little more they know about their past. Over the course of time, big and small encounters with family history add up to a foundational knowledge about where the family came from and a more developed sense of self for the child.
Don’t avoid the hard issues in your family’s past. You should always be sensitive to the age and maturity of the family members you are working with. But if you don’t have a scoundrel in your family history and you don’t have an inspiring hero, then you haven’t looked hard enough. The hard stories in your family history can be the most instructive and the most inspiring when your children face hard challenges in their own lives. Each family member will have to deal with the complete truth of your family history at some point and in some way. Helping them process those stories can make you a transitional person who changes the family dynamic for the better. Remember that for every hard story there is a survivor and someone to look up to, or a lesson to learn about consequences.
Sharpen your story-telling skills. No teen will turn down a chance to see their Dad’s report card. And no child will turn down a chance to see a picture of a family member who looks like them or was photographed at the same age the child is now. And everyone will listen to the stories about how their grandmother got into trouble as a young child. Always keep your stories truthful, but make sure you are telling the interesting parts of your history. The benefits for the listener will be long-lasting and life changing.
Where to Start
Resources at ZapTheGrandmaGap.com
- Free 52-week email newsletter
- Free 35-page workbook for youth
- Free downloads, pedigree charts, activities and more
- Internet Resource Collection
- Continuing ideas on Pinterest, YouTube, Blog, Twitter, Google+ and Facebook
About the Author
Janet Hovorka owns Family ChartMasters, genealogy chart printing service and is the author of the Zap the Grandma Gap book and workbooks. Janet writes The Chart Chick and the Zap The Grandma Gap blogs and has widely written and lectured about family history. She is immediate past president of UGA and teaches genealogy and library science at Salt Lake Community College, SLCC
 Duke, Marshal and Robyn Fivush “The Intergenerational Self: Subjective Perspective and Family History.” http://marial.emory.edu/pdfs/duke fivush intergenself.doc The Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life at the Psychology Department of Emory University. See also http://zapthegrandmagap.blogspot.com/2013/07/the-intergenerational-self.html
 Fischer, P., Sauer, A., Vogrincic, C. and Weisweiler, S. (2011), The ancestor effect: Thinking about our genetic origin enhances intellectual performance. European Journal of Social Psychology, 41: 11–16.