Teaching Tweens and Teens Genealogy and Family History Skills

Nov 18, 2010Updated 8 months ago

Interviewing Older Family Members
Small children often enjoy hearing their parents and grandparents talk about their childhoods, and there are plenty of activities that multiple generations can share (see Fun Family History Projects for Children and Families). Older kids and teens, however, may be ready for more serious genealogical activities.

Create a Photo Family Tree Chart

Children and teens interested in photography can combine this pursuit with family history by creating a visual family tree filled with photos of relatives and ancestors. Many good genealogy software programs allow you to scan in photos, and then output a file that can be printed at home, at a local copy shop, or by a company specializing in family tree charts. Rick Crume, writing in “On the Charts,” Family Tree Magazine 9/27/2009, lists a number of companies that print wall-sized charts in various formats.

The young photographer can take photos of living relatives, and then search for appropriate images of his or her ancestors. Old photos should be copied or scanned (don’t cut up those one-of-a-kind old prints!), and the resulting new images can then be resized or cropped to fit into the design.

Children Can Interview Older Relatives

Interviewing an older relative can be a great activity for tweens and teens. Spending time with an older relative often solidifies bonds, and it can ensure that children get to know and care for previous generations. Having a topic of interest to both (their family) keeps the conversation moving and provides the common ground necessary for a good interview.

Before the interview, have children prepare by making a list of the questions they wish to ask. Such questions can be about the subject’s childhood, for example, or might focus on getting names, dates, and places of birth, death, and marriage of their siblings. Asking about stories the subject might have been told as a child can be enlightening for both children and their parents, who may not have heard older tales. Interviewees may enjoy telling about family holiday celebrations, or favorite dishes from Sunday supper prepared by their own grandmothers.

Once the questions have been prepared, make sure that they are organized in a logical fashion, rather than jumping around from topic to topic. Also be sure that there are some short, easily answered questions (where were you born?), as well as some that will promote more dialogue (what games did you play as a child?). Just be sure that the number of questions isn’t overwhelming, and that the subject is willing.

Responses to the questions can be noted down on paper, or recorded. Make sure the subject is comfortable with an audio or video recording before starting the interview. Let the child do the interview without prompting; adults can ask other questions later if they wish. Afterwards, the interviews should be transcribed so that the information obtained can be used for other projects or be entered into a genealogy software program.

Genealogical Research Promotes Critical Thinking Skills

Genealogical research can be an excellent introduction to logic and critical thinking in general. Genealogists have to learn not to rely on unproven sources, and to ask questions that lead to realistic and rational conclusions. These critical thinking skills will be useful in many aspects of life, as they can help children analyze problems and potential solutions, and thus help them make good choices.

Many libraries have a subscription to Ancestry.com, and this is a good starting point for developing research skills. Have children search census records for their grandparents, and then look for other documents to compare with the census records. Use one of the books on genealogy designed for children (see Books and Websites for Kids Family History Activities) for explanations. Then discuss how information on the census and other documents was obtained, and why it may not be accurate. You can also look at some of the family trees on Ancestry, paying special attention to the lack of documentation and the consequently limited usefulness of these trees.

Genealogy, like many other disciplines, is a search for knowledge, and it’s critical that genealogists learn to analyze sources and make informed judgments about the material they find. Young people will find this critical skill useful not only when looking at family history, but in science, history, and many other fields.

Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts Genealogy Merit Badges and Patches

For children active in scouting, both Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts have programs that encourage learning about family history. Boy Scouts can earn a genealogy merit badge, which is described on the Boy Scouts of America website.

Girl Scouts do not have a patch specifically for genealogy, but have several options for learning about family history. For example, there’s a cadet level patch for Generations Hand in Hand, and a junior patch for My Heritage.

Getting Started with Genealogy

Many adult genealogists say they got started as children when they were required to compile a family tree for a school lesson. Most kids these days won’t be given such an assignment, so it’s up to the parents and relatives to nurture a child’s natural interest in his or her family history. Millions of adults enjoy genealogy and family history as pastime or passion, so why not introduce the younger generation to a fascinating hobby?

More Information:

Crume, Rick “On the Charts,” Family Tree Magazine 9/27/2009

Stacy, Allison "Genealogy Activities for Kids," Family Tree Magazine 9/28/2009