Why research your family history as a busy mom

When I was nine years old, my class did a play about the U.S. Constitution. As is common with low-key school plays, the teacher went around the room and asked us which character we wanted to play. This was alphabetically---I knew my first choice might be picked before it was my turn.

So I had two choices ready. My first choice did get picked before my turn. I ended up playing William Paterson, New Jersey's signer. How did I settle on him? My last name was Patterson. It's as good a reason as any for a fourth-grader to pick a part!

Not surprisingly, this led to questions of whether our "Patterson" family was related to this "Paterson." So I went home and asked my dad.

And I got a BS answer that somehow involved us arriving before the Irish potato famine which somehow meant we weren't related to William Paterson.

If you aren't a history person, you may not see the problem. The Irish potato famine started in 1845. If my family arrived in the U.S. before that, it has no bearing on our relationship to William Paterson. He was obviously here, too, or he couldn't have signed the Constitution.

I don't really remember the details of the answer my father gave me. And at 9-years-old I had no idea which year the Irish potato famine started but apparently, I had at least some inkling of where in U.S. history it went (what I would have thought of as "the middle"). What I know for sure is my dad loved history. He wouldn't have made a mistake like that.

He was trying to answer my question and he wasn't someone that would say "I don't know." I'm not sure if he outright lied (since I don't remember the answer) but I knew his answer was not a real answer to my real question.

Do you know what that question was (not just "are we related to this famous guy")?

Where are we from?

Have you asked the same question and not gotten an answer? Maybe you never thought to ask that question as a child. Maybe you had some general sense of where your family was from. Maybe you even have actual stories.

Becoming a parent makes you start to think about your family history. It doesn't matter what you know about your family, you may want to know more.

This post is especially for parents with kids still at home who are curious about their family history but have no idea where they should start---or even if they should use part of their precious time on this endeavor.

So let me start with an important question for busy parents.

How much time does it take to start your family history?

The answer to the specific question of STARTING your family history is, "very little time." The problem is, family history research, which is the same as "genealogy research," is never-ending.

That's one of the things I love. I have a hobby for life. I will never become so proficient at it that it loses its challenge and it will never be complete. It is possible to come to a point where you don't have the resources to do more, though.

That is the situation you face right now. One of your resources is time. Money is, of course, another vital resource. There are also the resources you access using time and money such as actual records, or visits, or phone calls to relatives.

That's why this post is aimed specifically at parents who are actively parenting (i.e. you aren't an empty-nester). You can find time for family history research, but you have to be smart about it.

There are a number of benefits to researching your family history (both for you knowing about your family history and for your children who might only know about their family history through you). I'm about to cover those but...

This post kicks off a series about starting your family history research as a busy mom (or dad). Posts are infrequent (because you're a busy mom, you don't need frequent!). The best way to keep up is by signing up for the free newsletter.

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Why research your family history when you're already short on time?

If you aren't interested in family history, the benefits aren't so substantial that you should force yourself to do the research. I'm assuming if you're reading this, you're interested, though.

For anyone, adult or child, a primary benefit of knowing your family history is developing resilience. Knowing what your family has overcome makes you more likely to feel you can overcome adversity. There's even a study that indicates this goes so far as to improve performance on intelligence tests, including job interviews.1

I can't say whether I've seen this benefit in my own life. Since I've been doing genealogy since I was 9, there's not really a baseline of not thinking about my ancestors. I can tell you I absolutely feel more confident and resilient because I know about my ancestors.

When I was pregnant with my first child, it really helped thinking about all the farmer's wives that went before me. Being pregnant with your first child is scary. You have no idea what's going on (and I really did feel like the analogy of having an alien take over my body---this wasn't my body, what was going on?!?!)

My ancestresses mostly had many children and had to work a lot harder than me just to put food on the table. I knew if they could survive with little or no medical attention, limited diets, and far more physical responsibilities, I could do this.

I knew modern life wasn't a guarantee that everything would be OK, but I could also see I came from "good stock." Those women gave me my genes so with a much better lifestyle, if they could do it, so could I.

That's another "adult" benefit. Researching your family history can put you in touch with your health history and possibly even give you answers to health questions. This isn't a benefit I want to over-emphasize. How much health information you can gain will vary widely.

I didn't think about farmer's wives to the exclusion of my urban ancestresses, I almost only have farmer's wives. There is little accurate medical information I can gather about my family, even in the 20th century. There is no health information available about most of my ancestors. Sometimes I get lucky and they died in a time or place where a record was actually made listing the cause of death. Often it's of limited use because it's a historic medical term that could be any number of modern causes.

Your situation could be very different so if you are interested in health history, it's worth doing the research. If nothing else, you will accumulate the equivalent of statistics about your ancestors. You'll see how long they lived, about how many children they had (and how many survived), and other less specific information that still relates to your health.

The main benefit I get from doing genealogy is, I just love doing genealogy. Sitting all day is the downside but otherwise, I'm sure doing an activity I enjoy is good for me in general.

Sharing your family history with your children has additional benefits for them.

Benefits for children of knowing their family history

You may have seen some of the articles about the study done at Emory University. In brief, children who know about their family, meaning multiple generations, appear to be better off emotionally.2

To me, this makes sense. Obviously I have a leaning towards wanting to know about my family, though. Here's my "well of course that's true" take...Children who know stories from older generations were obviously told those stories by someone. Someone took the time to share with them.

If a child feels those stories belong to them, that they aren't just stories, they obviously have a feeling of belonging to family. I think we can all relate to a feeling of belonging. Even without additional scientific testing to back this up, as a parent, I want to give that to my child. Those stories last longer than us. That feeling of belonging can be infinite.

How to give your children "family"

If you already have stories about your family, you can obviously share them with your children. But what if you don't?

Actually, you do have stories. You have the stories of you. I used to (and still do) love to listen to my mom tell me stories about her life B.C. (Before Children). My dad was in the Air Force during Vietnam so her stories could be somewhat exotic. However, I also loved the stories about her everyday childhood (which wasn't that much like my childhood from a socio-economic standpoint but also not that different).

My daughter, age 5, now sits down next to grandmother and says, "Gaga, tell me a story about when Mommy and Aunt La were little." I almost cried the first time she did this.

You don't have to give your children stories of far-off generations. You don't have to have grandparents to tell those stories. Tell your stories.

When I was doing the research for this post, I found this article which I particularly like. The family does have multi-generation stories but you can also see how their children had learned about their parents' lives, too.

Start by sharing your own stories. If you don't know your family history, you can be researching it while you give your children the gift of belonging to you.

Involve your children in genealogy research

No matter what age your children are, you can involve them. For really young children, it's going to be you sharing stories with them. As they get older, you may want to actually get them researching.

I started researching at age 9. And yes, that was before the Internet so I did it the old fashioned way and just like any adult. Don't underestimate your children's academic ability to do research.

Don't force them to help, either. As much as I love genealogy (and I REALLY love genealogy) my sister, who is just as much a book-worm and researcher as me, has no interest in doing genealogy research. She loves the stories but the actual research just doesn't interest her.

Enjoying genealogical research is partly a matter of personality. If you don't have a crazy older sister to do the research for you, you may be compelled to do your own research if you want it done at all. But that means your children have you to do it for them.

If your children dislike helping with research, don't force them. This can give them a life-long distaste for family history.

If they are interested, let them help. If they are only interested in certain aspects (whether it's that they like writing a family history based on your research, or they only like researching certain subjects), go with it.

Family history research and knowing about your family history have benefits. That doesn't mean everyone needs to be compelled to do comprehensive research into their family. I'll give you a parable via one of those stories I used to hear as a child.

My dad hated green beans. He absolutely refused to eat them. This was perplexing to me and my sister as children. Green beans were a vegetable we'd eat. I actually love green beans as an adult. We don't have green bean casserole when I cook Thanksgiving dinner because I think it's a waste of perfectly good green beans. My dad wouldn't eat green beans in any form.

One day he told us why he hated green beans so much. Turns out he disliked them as a child. This apparently wasn't acceptable and so his father sat on him to make him eat his green beans. I'm not sure if they were forced down his throat or if this was more of a "you aren't getting up from this table until you eat these" tactic.

It doesn't really matter. Once he had a choice, he never ate green beans again.

Don't make family history the green beans for your child. Sharing the stories is important, the research is optional. It would be sad if your children wouldn't talk about their family history to their children because they were forced to do research they hated as a child.

How you involve your children should match your interests and theirs. If it turns out you want to know about your family history but you don't really like the research, and one of your children does, be their assistant.

If you love doing the research and need your children to be involved (because that's the only way you will have time to do research), genealogy can teach all sorts of academic skills. Get creative to find tasks to keep them busy while you research.

Match tasks to what they're studying in school if you can't match a task to their interests. Don't just think social studies. Little kids can do genealogy math, big kids can work on advanced critical thinking. Have them write, whether for practice learning to write words or learning to write essays. This is especially possible if you homeschool and have control of what they do to learn.

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I also have one more article that I didn't really need as a citation but I found interesting. I think all of the articles linked to are interesting as a foundation for thinking about the place of family history in your young family. I really encourage you to read them when you have some time.

1 https://digest.bps.org.uk/2010/12/20/the-benefits-of-thinking-about-our-ancestors/
2 http://shared.web.emory.edu/emory/news/releases/2010/03/children-benefit-if-they-know-about-their-relatives-study-finds.html

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