A living legacy: Encouraging kids to climb your family's tree

May 1, 2008 at 12:03 a.m. ET

"Who was your Grandma's Grandma?" "Where were you born?" "Where did our last name come from?" A child's fascination about his heritage and lineage usually begins to awaken around the age of five or six.

The natural curiosity of many children leads to a barrage of questions about where they were born, where you were born, and who their great, great, great grandfather was. Satiating a child's desire to have accurate and interesting information often rekindles a parent's fascination with researching a family's history.

Sadly, the lure of playing with friends, extra-curricular activities and video games -- combined with the rigors of homework, religious education and household responsibilities -- often leaves virtually no time to reflect on one's family and ancestors. Although questions such as "Where was Grandpa born?' and "How many brothers and sisters does Grandma have?" may cause you to ponder your heritage, they also present a wonderful opportunity for you and your children to spend time together. Finding the answers to these and similar question provides the opportunity for you each to learn about each other, and your entire family.

The cornucopia of resources, knowledgeable life experiences, and invaluable interaction that spending time with extended family members offers is often forgotten in the busy lives of growing children. Coupled with not knowing where or how to begin gathering and sorting ancestral information, sadly, the legacy and family history of many families is not passed down through the generations. Starting with the basics, and tapping into some creative resources, you can develop many skills and foster bonds while your child learns to climb his family's tree.

Climbing a tree

Finding a commonality between children and grandparents, aunts, and uncles is the first step -- and one that should not be perceived as daunting. Recognizing the wonder and grace that family members add to a child's life can be achieved by giving your kids the chance to 'interview' extended generations of their families.

Researching a family tree using innovative options to celebrate less-touted holidays such as Grandparents Day, Sweetest Day or even Groundhog Day can yield terrific information. Scheduling a family tree meeting day or picnic on Arbor Day or 'Interview with Grandma' on Grandparents Day adds a fun touch to an often overlooked event. Using Valentine's Day to jot down all the hearts that love your child adds many branches to a blooming family tree. Whatever day you and your child prefer, using some creative alternatives creates a fun way to learn about his ancestors as well as spend time with loved ones.

Under the supervision of a family member, a web-savvy child can show off her surfing prowess by visiting www.ancestry.com or www.geneology.com or one of the countless other sites devoted to genealogy. Many of these sites feature free trial access to the databases, files and thousands of records as well as the ability to search other family's trees that are posted on the site. Together with a loved one, your child will build her knowledge of your family's history as she enjoys the company of her co-researcher.

Community colleges and park districts offer seminars that parents, family members, and children can attend together. Giving a gift certificate for three generations of your family to attend a class together is a terrific way to surprise a grandparent for their birthday that also generates quality time spent together.

Turn your burgeoning cub reporter loose with a pad of paper or tape recorder for an afternoon of interviewing his great aunt, grandfather or third cousin. Learning about where, when and how various family members lived as a child, went to school and what they ate every Sunday for dinner helps to build your child's foundation and shape her interests.

The hidden benefits

Working on tracing her ancestors, interviewing family members, or drawing her family's tree is a project that can be easily started and stopped depending on schedules and activities. When the weather isn't cooperating, or your child is looking for an alternative to video games, picking up the phone to collect additional facts from her aunt or grandfather is always a productive alternative. Your child will not only build her knowledge of where she's from, she'll learn how to take notes, conduct research and further her communication skills.

Younger children can refine their artistic abilities and make simplified trees by gluing photos of the family members onto a tree they lovingly drew on a large piece of paper. Older kids and teens can utilize their computer skills and archive their progress on spreadsheets or using genealogy software and various presentation software options. They can create timelines, video journals or their interviews or incorporate a more detailed version of the photograph family tree that traces family beyond available photographs.

You also never know what intrigue and information your family might stumble onto. Starting out with nothing more elaborate than a pad of paper and a pen or pencil, your child may discover that your neighbor two houses away is actually your seventh cousin, or that your family name was changed -- accidentally or on purpose -- when your ancestors immigrated to the country.

Of course, one of the most beneficial aspects is the time your child has to spend with the various members of her family. Hearing stories of your childhood, her grandparent's first job or -- much to a child's dismay -- that her great grandparents truly did use an outhouse provides lifelong memories as it cements the ever-important relationships in your child's life.