Family History – It’s So Much More Than a Family Tree

Often our interest in our family history doesn’t happen until later in life, when you want to learn more about where your ancestors came from and what their stories were. But, sometimes it’s too late to get the answers. This is because older family members may have passed on, and with them, the information you seek.

Family History provides a sense of belonging, a knowledge of who you are and where you came from. Record-keeping is vital to family members being more than just a name on a family tree. Think about how you would like to be remembered. Now consider that your family members would probably want the same – their story told.

That’s why it’s so important to get our kids interested in family history. They deserve to get that information, before it’s too late. Don’t get me wrong… the concept doesn’t exactly scream ‘fun’ to a child Moreover, getting them to ‘buy in’ may be difficult. Because of all of this, we’ve put together this list of great, interactive activities, that will not only get them invested in their family history, but also develop and strengthen family bonds and preserve vital information. One day, as a result of doing this, they will be so grateful to possess and pass on the information to their own children.

Unfortunately, we don’t live forever, but the memory of loved ones lives on, by those who care about them. 

  1. Interview a loved one

Everyone has a story. Interviewing them is an opportunity for it to be told and to learn about your loved ones. It’s easy to get caught up in the day to day, and many of us don’t stop and think about how we got to where we are today, let alone how our parents, or grandparents’ lives took the paths they did. Remember, before you were born, they had a whole life you didn’t experience with them.

By helping your parents or grandparents share their story, you can pass on what kind of a person they were and what kind of life they lived to your kids and so on – keeping their legacy alive. Simply prepare a series of questions and write them down or record them. I would highly recommend recording the interview. Smart phones have voice recorders on them, making this an easily achievable option. There is no better person to tell their story than the person themselves. And one day you won’t have them here and you’ll miss that voice so much. Think about how nice it’ll be to have it preserved?  Therefore, make sure you save the file and back it up. Or, load it as a private file on YouTube or Vimeo.

Wondering what to ask? Here are some great interview questions to ask family members, to help preserve your family’s story.

  1. What’s your full name and was it given to you for a significant reason? (was it a family name- like the name of your grandmother for example)
  2. When/ where were you born? Did anything unusual happen at the birth/ surrounding the birth? 
  3. Tell me your parents’ names and your happiest memories of them. Can you tell me what was most important to them?
  4. What were the most important lessons your parents taught you and the qualities they had/have?
  5. Ask about their grandparents (names, memories, any significant stories, what do you remember most about them, what was most important to them)
  6. If Grandma and grandpa had a message to you and their grandchildren, what do you think it is?
  7. Tell me about your childhood – where did you grow up? What comes to mind when you think about growing up in your hometown?
  8. What did you do for fun as a kid? Who were your friends, did you play sports, did you win anything? Did you get into trouble for anything? Was school enjoyable to you? Did you have a favourite subject? What was your least favourite subject? Did you know what you wanted to be when you grew up? (you can ask about before they were a teenager/ when they were a teenager as the answers may be different)
  9. Tell me about: your first boyfriend/ girlfriend? First date? First Kiss?
  10. How did you meet your wife/ husband and know they were the one?
  11. Can you you describe him/her to me? What message would you have for them that you’d always want them to remember?
  12. Tell me about the day my mum/dad was born.
  13. What advice would you give to new parents? Were you ever scared to be a parent? Can you pick three words to represent your approach to parenting and tell me why those three?
  14. Do you remember things about when each of us (siblings) were born?

Need even more?….

  1. When you think about (me/ siblings) how would you describe me/them? What message would you have for them, that you’d always want them to remember?
  2. How did you choose your career and what’s your favourite part about what you do? Have you had other jobs, and if so what were they? What makes you successful at your job? Can you give me some advice for careers/work?
  3. If they have served in the military, ask them about their service. Ask about other members of the family who may have served, and their experiences.
  4. What would be your recipe for happiness?
  5. How do you deal with hard times?
  6. Can you tell me three events most shaped your life?
  7. Chose the three best decisions you’ve ever made
  8. What are you most proud of in life?
  9. Pick five of the most positive moments of your life
  10. What have you learned about other people in life?
  11. Is there anything you think the world needs more of right now?
  12. How would you like to be remembered? What three words best describe who you tried to be in life/ how you tried to live your life?
  13. Is there a message you would like to share with your family?
  14. What are you most thankful for?

Tips for interviews: Use photographs to trigger memories and get the stories following. You can also research items and events that have happened during your grandparents’ lifetime, and ask them about their experience or memories.

If you don’t want to transcribe the story yourself, you could try websites like this one that convert the audio to text for you.

  1. Start your own journal

It doesn’t have to be daily if it ‘isn’t your thing’. You could just record important events (dates and details) down. So, think; ‘what information would I want my grandkids/great-grandkids to know about me/my life’? and then write them down. Kids are never too young to start this process, recording big milestones. Even better – you could do this activity together as a family.

Here’s a list of things to record:

  • What your full name is and when and where you were born (repeat for siblings and parents)
  • Include your siblings’ names, and when and where they were born
  • Both of your parents’ names, when and where they were born, what they were like, the kind of work they did, special memories about them. Repeat for your grandparents and great-grandparents, if you knew them
  • How your parents met
  • Everything you remember from your childhood: the games and books you liked; your hobbies, sports and activities; where you went to school; favourite and least favourite subjects in school; what you wanted to be when you grew up; your chores around the house; trouble you got into
  • Your high school years: school subjects you were great at/ not-so-great at, sports and activities, jobs, friends and dating, learning to drive, how you got along with your parents
  • Both your university years and the transition into working life
  • Adult relationships and/or how you met your spouse
  • Where you settled as a young adult, your friends and activities, religious life, travel, work
  • Being a parent: when and where your children were born, their names and how you chose them, what you love about being a parent
  • Life lessons you’ve learned and advice you’d like to share
  • Family stories passed down to you, that you in turn want to pass down to others
  • Medical struggles that might also impact others in your family, if you feel comfortable sharing them
  • Your genealogy discoveries

There’s a great workbook called ‘Story of My Life’ By Sunny Jane Morton that helps guide this process/ store this information. You could get one, for each member of the family. 

  1. Create a family tree

Start with yourself and record the names of your parents, their parents and so forth. See how many generations you can go back. We have a Family Tree downloadable available that you can use. 

  1. Put together a family recipe book 

Collate the recipes from your family and make a cookbook. You can make one yourself (see our My First Cookbook template). Or, print professionally via a website like this one. You may also just like to create a recipe card box. Either way, how nice is it to make Grandma’s or Great Grandma’s secret cake recipe? It’s a little taste of history and brings back all those memories of baking with Grandma in her kitchen.

Maybe you could also get handwritten recipes printed onto canvas and hang them in your kitchen as artwork. Functional, special and tasty!

  1. Create a family photo book

Like the recipe book, there are websites that help you create a great photo book, preserving family photos. You can put all the old photos you have in here. This way don’t get lost. Also include all the information you have about the people in the photo, the year and where it was taken etc. Often there is only one copy of these cherished shots, so this is a great way, for every member of the family to receive a copy. Creating/compiling this with your children, including their grandparents in the process as well, is a great conversation starter and a lot of fun.

  1. Family history displays 

This is a subtle way to start the ‘family history conversation’. Start with your own family’s to get them interested in preserving ‘stories.’ You could put up a map of the world in your house. Then, mark all the places you/the family have travelled, to inspire conversation/ memories. Maybe you can also place photos of the adventures beside the map to remind your children of the travels. Your children could pick the photos to be displayed. You can then place photos of your ancestors on the wall and inspire conversations about their adventures. The same applies to family heirlooms, trophies, medals etc. Place them in a prominent place and the questions will flow.

  1. Make a family time capsule 

Time capsules are a fun way to preserve your family history for future generations. You could choose to set the opening date to a future family reunion or celebration – like a milestone birthday or anniversary. You will need; family keepsakes, photos, a strong airtight container, acid-free paper (to write down the significance of the items included, information on the person who wrote the note), silica gel packets or oxygen-absorbing packets, paraffin or candle wax to seal (optional). It’s important to note – you aren’t burying this capsule, as you may move. This is to be stored in your home somewhere with a ‘do not open until ____ ‘ date sign on the front. Store away from light and heat.

  1. Future letters

Ask all the important people in your life to write a letter to your children for when they turn 21. This is even more important if they may not be alive on that special occasion. You can do the same for weddings. Afterwards, store them safely and give it to them on that special occasion.

  1. Do DNA tests 

To find out genetically and geographically where you come from.

  1. Give old-fashioned chores and handicrafts a whirl

Experiencing chores and craft activities your parents and grandparents would do growing up, gives your children an appreciation for how different their lives were. Activities could include; sewing, knitting, soap/candle-making, gardening, fruit preserving/ making jams, washing clothes by hand and hanging on the clothesline. It would be even better if the grandparents could lead these activities, creating bonding experiences and memories that will be treasured.

Extension activity: visit a historical village and discuss the items you see and how they were used-like washboards, flat irons and push lawn mowers etc.

Have fun preserving and making memories with your family. Always remember, your own family story is being created right now, make each moment count.