Share Family History with Your Grandchildren

There are many ways you can bring the past to life for youngsters

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

If your grandchildren suddenly have “important” things to do elsewhere when you share family stories, perhaps you could tweak how you talk about your history. 

Not everyone is a gifted storyteller, and not all grandchildren see the value in learning about their background. For some grandchildren, you need to find a more engaging way to tell your stories to help them better appreciate their roots.

William Keeler, librarian archivist with the Rochester Historical Society, said that the details are what hook many grandchildren.

“Grandparents don’t think about their lives as being important, but the little details are very interesting,” he said.

Draw a correlation between the detail and some aspect of current day life that interests them. “When I was your age, my favorite toy was the hula hoop. Every kid in my school had one.” Or, especially for older children, your personal link to a big historical event.  “I remember the day when my dad — your great-grandfather — came home from World War II. When he carried me up bed, I wouldn’t let go of him.”

As they show interest, expand on the comment.

Hands-on activity can help. Help your grandchild try a hula hoop, for example.

Get out old cookbooks and whip up family favorites together. Share how you felt as a child helping your mother cook, including the physical sensations such as, feeling the squishy dough, licking the mixing spoon, smelling the cookies baking and tasting the final product. Reliving those memories with grandchildren can help them create their own memories.

Keeler encouraged bringing out memorabilia that children can see and handle, such as a military uniform, wedding dress, favorite teddy bear and other objects you had when younger. Talk about how they are different from today’s items.

Watching an old cartoon or movie can help children understand how things have changed since you were small. After the show ends, talk about how you thought about it as a child or what was happening then that influenced the content of the show.

Keller also said that allowing grandchildren to explore storage boxes can lead to questions and shared stories, too.

Activities can help stir — and share — memories. Kathy Kanauer, town historian of Penfield, was a substitute teacher at several Wayne County schools. As a new grandma, she looks forward to telling her family history through photographs, a medium she enjoys sharing with her family all over the country.

“If you make an album with them, tell them who the person is and their position in the family and a couple stories, whatever you know about them,” Kanauer said. “That brings people to life.”

She also suggested creating a visual family tree with copies of photos so children can visualize their relatives.

“As they get older, share family letters or diaries, and any kind of written documentation,” Kanauer said. “We don’t write letters and keep diaries anymore.”

To find more points of conversation, try visiting a museum that includes displays and artifacts from the last century. The objects may help spark memories to share with the grandchildren.

“We’re so fortunate to have so many museums and different kinds of museums in the area,” said Vicki Masters Profitt, director the Fairport Museum, which is owned and operated by the Perinton Historical Society. “Show the children things that you grew up with, like a rotary phone. Kids are fascinated by that.”

Some libraries and museums offer local yearbooks. Find yours and show them your high school self, along with examples of the clothing and hairstyles of the era.

At home, drag out any clothing from your high school days you may have and help your grandchildren stage a fashion show, complete with the music of your teen years. Tell them about concerts you attended when you first heard that music, for example.

“Being able to see things from the past, they can connect to their own families and their own communities,” Masters Profitt said. “They get a richer sense of what life was like in the past.”