What First Graders Can Teach Us About Genealogy

In 2014, Else Doerflinger wrote “What Teaching First Graders Has Taught Me About Genealogy.” It’s one of those posts that continues to haunt me.

She talked about working with her first grade class on family history and learning some invaluable lessons. Here are some of her conclusions and my thoughts about them:

  • Family are the people that love you. I love this. The traditional family isn’t Ozzie and Harriett. It is the Kardashians. Traditional family trees won’t work when there are half and step children and multiple marriages, two mothers, two fathers, and children raised by their aunts and uncles or grandparents, or even great-grandparents, or non-family, friends, neighbors, employers even. This is no different than it has ever been. I’ve ancestors raised by grand or great grandparents along with many half and step children, it’s still hard to tell which belongs to which birth-parent combination. The “traditional” family tree structure myth should have been broken a long time ago. It’s time for the genealogy industry to learn from these first graders, and time to reformat our family structure forms and concepts.
  • Kids have zero concept of time, space, or geography. As I research, I sometimes find myself searching too narrowly, focusing only on the records of one town or state. I have to remember that our ancestors were mobile, not confined to any space or geography, and more mobile than we may think. I have one ancestor who crossed the Atlantic Ocean multiple times in his lifetime in the 1600-1700s, traveling alone and with family and employees, who also traveled throughout Europe. So many times I’ve thought of him as an aberration, the exception to the rule. I need to start thinking like a kid again and open up my mind to new possibilities. As for the children’s inability to consider a visit from President Lincoln, I feel it is our job as family historians to make sure that my family living today feel like they know our ancestors like they were sitting down in the same room having tea and a good chat. Let’s do a Doctor Who and defy time and space with our family history.
  • They L-O-V-E to be helpers. One of the complaints I hear from many family historians is that no one is interested in their research. I think they didn’t ask right. I believe that people want to help with family history, it’s just that it looks so overwhelming. Start bragging about the 64 great-x grandparents you’re searching, or the thousand in your genealogy software program tree, or even digging through the net or archives, people are going to cringe and look for the fastest escape route. If you make your request manageable, “can we sit down and have some tea and talk about what you remember about your grandparents,” or “do you have mom and dad’s marriage certificate,” or “I’d love to look at the old family photos from 1965 with you, is that okay?” Encourage them to get a DNA test as the least they can do to help, or even offer to gift them one. Tiny steps. Little requests. Help them feel like they can help you in little, manageable ways, and they might loosen up and realize that this isn’t such a complicated and intimidating process after all. At the very least, share your family finds with your family through Facebook, a blog, or just by email. Keep them involved and a part of the process.
  • First graders argue the way the same people do in genealogy groups on Facebook. This one made me laugh. Nothing changes. Whiners at five and six years old, whiners at 50 or 90. Yes, we shouldn’t have to pay so much for access to the records of our ancestors. Yes, we shouldn’t have to join eight different services to get twelve different answers. Yes, this should be easier. But come on! Family history research is easier than it has ever been. It is the money we paid that made businesses and archives sit up and say, “Hey, these records are worth money. We should digitize them and make them available online, and make money in the process.” While we can wish they were doing this out of the goodness of their compassion for preservation of historical records and documents, if greed gets them making our genealogy research easier, make your own coffee, pack your own lunches, walk or ride public transportation more than drive, turn down the thermostat and wear more layers, turn out all the lights and electricity vampires, and unsubscribe from those 1,400 cable channels. All you need is the Internet, a lamp or two, and all that savings going into family history access subscriptions. And feel blessed. Genealogy is one of the hottest and fastest growing industries around, and the better they get, the easier it is for us.

You can see why Elyse’s post was so memorable to me. It is a good reminder that sometimes we need to reach inside and reconnect with our inner child. He or she still has much to teach us.