Connect To The Youth In Your Family By Connecting Them To Their Family History

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Joy of Rediscovering Everyday Memories

Over on The Chart Chick, I have been dissecting The Ancestor Effect research study done in 2010.  It's been a powerful experience to see documented, scientific proof that backs up what we in the genealogy community have always known: Family History Benefits Us and Our Youth.  I'd love for you to look over the articles if you haven't had a chance to yet.

I found an interesting article called "The Unexpected Joy of Rediscovering the Ordinary" back in September, when I was in the depths of studying and deciphering the impact of this study, that I realized inadvertently coincides with the research done on The Ancestor Effect.  Particularly the final portion of the study that looked at whether or not negative familial memories had adverse effects on the test subjects, as opposed to positive familial memories.  Interestingly enough, it turns out that the academic and personal benefit of thinking of our ancestors is the same whether we have good memories/associations or bad memories/associations.  It seems counter-intuitive but the science has spoken.

So the article I mentioned was from the Boston Globe and the story originated from a study published in the Harvard journal Psychological Science (the link in the article is broken, so this is the best reference I can give you... sorry!) about how everyday memories are surprisingly just as powerful as the "big moments" of life, in retrospect.  The study came about when Harvard graduate student Ting Zhang was scrolling through pictures on her phone and realized that most of the things she had captured were birthdays, holidays, big events, and so forth.  Then, occasionally, she'd stumble on an inconspicuous, everyday moment and she realized she felt a sudden rush of joy from being reminded of how she felt in that moment that she had decided to take the picture.  An idea was born and she and her colleagues devised a series of experiments that would allow her to see if her feelings were unique or if others might have the same experiences in the same situation.  (In fact, her dissertation is on the psychology of rediscovery.  How cool is that?)

In one study, the researchers had asked undergraduates to create a "time capsule," to be reviewed after a summer, of seemingly ordinary events that they were asked to write about (i.e. three songs they just listened to, the last party they just attended, the most recent conversation they had, etc.) and then to rate how interested they thought they would be to be reminded of these things later.  Three months later, when the "time capsules" were reviewed, it turns out that the undergraduates were actually more interested and excited to review the responses they had given than they had previously estimated.

In a second study, the researchers decided to compare an everyday memory and its personal effect with a holiday memory and it's effect.  A week before Valentine's Day, the test subjects were asked to write down a recent experience with their romantic partner.  Then, the day after Valentin's Day, the test subjects were asked to write down their Valentine's experience with their romantic partner.  They were asked to rate how they perceived each event.  Upon review later, even though test subjects consistently rated their Valentine's Day as more "extraordinary," it was revealed that reviewing the "ordinary" event brought just as much joy as the originally perceived "special" memory.  Take that overpriced roses and waxy chocolates!

Finally, another experiment was based on giving the test subjects the option of writing down a  few notes about a recent conversation they had had with someone or watching a short, funny video clip.  Most people voted to watch the video clip.  Regardless of what they chose though, the researchers then asked all the test subjects to do both items and then rated how interested they think they would be to remember the events a few months down the road.  Sure enough, nobody thought they'd care all that much about either event, but particularly about rereading what they wrote and, sure enough, the test subjects all discovered that they undervalued their interest greatly.  Pretty interesting, right?

So ultimately, it turns out that the researchers discovered that people ended up valuing their ordinary experiences much more than they originally expected they would.  In fact, as a result, many test subjects then went out and bought journals and reported recording their daily events more often.  Hmmm, I think I have talked about journals before, haven't I?  But in relation to The Ancestor Effect study, I think this has crossover merit there as well.  We, as a population, are intuitively led to believe that to have an interest in our families and their histories, the memories have to be positive or unique and grand.  We seem to believe that to receive a benefit from knowing about past events, the events have to be something amazing or profound.  But it turns out that every day and ordinary is just as powerful to us as big and grand.

The same thing happens when I look at pictures of my childhood with my family.  We all say, "I remember that wallpaper."  Or "That was such a funky clock we had in the kitchen."  rather than focusing on the birthday picture, or whatever else the subject actually was.  I watch that when Kim's family shows their old slides too.  I remember cropping pictures when I first did some scrapbooking years ago and starting to realize that I was losing some fantastic memories by cropping out the background.  Often the little details bring back so much.

Does that change your perspective any on how you approach your own family history and what you are preserving now?  You never know what someone might value in the future.

Does it make you want to take a different track when introducing family history to your children and grandchildren?  I will admit, I really think it's something to give a person pause.

It would seem that the garden doesn't have to be blooming prize roses for us to gain a happy perspective.  In fact, it turns out a few daisies are just as effective.  The crossover of the actual science behind family history and record keeping and how those things effect us, in the short and long term, is so fascinating.  The more studies I come across in my researching the more I realize how everyone is coming to the same conclusion scientifically: Family History Benefits Us and Our Youth.  Knowing small and simple facts about our family, good or bad, and recording small and simple events, good or bad, help us and make us happy down the road.  In the short term and the long term.  How awesome is that?  Very much so, I think!

Monday, October 6, 2014

#MeetMyGrandma and Why It Matters

Recently, FamilySearch launched a campaign titled #MeetMyGrandma.  The goal was for youth to gather stories from or about their grandparents and then enter those stories in their family tree on FamilySearch.  The campaign officially ran from September 20th to September 30th.  Family Search set the goal of gathering 10,000 stories in 10 days.  As of October 5th, the counter on the website states "15,075 Stories and still counting..."  That is impressive.

This was more than just a slick campaign to encourage young people to gather stories and use the FamilySearch website.  FamilySearch launched an app to help with the process and offered up 20 questions to help get the conversation rolling.  Apparently one young person discovered that Grandma loved skydiving.  Say what?!  But how would that ever come up in conversation, if you think about it, without a pointed conversation were a young person specifically asks a grandparent to express his or her interests?  I'm not sure about you but I don't think my grandma would be the type to sit around the dinner table and randomly say, "That reminds me of the time I went skydiving."  Maybe if I had a grandma who was the type to go skydiving she would say that?  Hard to imagine in my family..

The ultimate goal of the campaign was to involve youth in gathering precious family stories and facts "before it's too late," either from their grandparents directly or from someone else with first hand knowledge of their grandparents.  And then, of course, to document those facts and stories.  Besides the fact that we're all family historians here, why does this matter?  Well, as it so happens, I've been sharing research over on The Chart Chick that is scientifically proving how effective ancestor salience (the act of being immersed in an ancestor's life) is in benefitting a person's life.  The study I am discussing right now, The Ancestor Effect, specifically tested the impact of just thinking about an ancestor.  Part III of the series actually looks at how it isn't thinking about people in general (even people you love and care for deeply) that affects a person's sense of personal control and ability, but rather thinking about ancestors specifically that does that.  It turns out that knowing something (anything) about an ancestor, near or far, has a profound effect on personal expectations and intellectual ability.  Please be sure to also look at Part I and Part II of the study in order to see the benefits of focusing on our ancestors.  It makes a profound impact on our youth, intellectually and emotionally.

So, in the end, there are many more positives to the #MeetMyGrandma campaign than simply recording family stories.  It has the power to give our children and grandchildren a better sense of personal control (internal locus of control), self-esteem, and intellectual capabilities.  Knowing and sharing family stories is a way to arm our youth with positive and effective tools that allow them to succeed in their personal, academic, and eventually, professional endeavors.  I keep calling it a "genetic superpower" because there is no better way to think of it.  Sharing family stories and family history with our youth empowers them and strengthens them in a way that insures their personal success.  And now, we have the science to back us up when we tell them how important it is for them to engage with us in our family history! :)

*Original story on the #MeetMyGrandma campaign:

Thursday, September 25, 2014

New Arrival!

Look at this cutie!  My sister Amy, who helped me to write my Zap the Grandma Gap Workbooks, just had her first baby.  Harrison Brent Slade was born this week and we are all smitten.  Congratulations to my sister and her husband!  As a cute side note, my brother-in-law Colin, is a huge Star Wars fan.  So, can anyone guess where my sweet nephew's name originated from?  The proud parents have decided his nickname will most likely be either Han or Indy.  I think that is pretty cool.  And of course, my teenage boys are over the moon.

Amy was my right-hand person on my first set of workbooks.  I'm working on new workbooks this Fall, hoping to have them hot off the presses for the holiday season; but, something tells me Amy is going to be a little preoccupied this go around.  Well, I certainly can't blame her.  Just look at that face!

Welcome to the world, Harrison!  We're so excited to meet you.

Friday, September 19, 2014

What Would 365 Days Say?

Everyone has a "bucket list," right?  Some of us have them written down, some of us have an entire Pinterest board devoted to it, and some of us just carry the ideas or dreams around in our hearts hoping to check them off one day.  It's always interesting to hear the types of things people place on their bucket lists.  Just sticking to family related items, I have heard everything from "I want to travel to Norway and stand amongst the fjords where my ancestors stood" to "I am going to compile a complete Book of Remembrance of my life to pass on to my children" to "I want to find my birth parents someday."  All very different but all very personal and intense.  Those are all things that would probably better someone's life experience a bit more than "I want to go sky-diving."  Not that I am knocking extreme sports or anything.  But in the grand scheme of life, the more permanent stuff just feels worth pursuing, doesn't it?

So, before I wax too philosophical about our life journey to-do lists, I came across a task not too long ago that really got me thinking.  It doesn't hurt the thought process to mention that I feel like the goal in and of itself would match up pretty well with some scientific studies I am currently researching about ancestor connections and the effect that has on our intelligence level (seriously, it's exciting stuff).  The "bucket list item" that has me pondering lately is this one.  Taking one picture everyday for a year.  Look, we live in a digital age.  We think nothing of snapping away with our cameras and phones these days.  We document everything from our shoes, to our post workout hair, to our breakfast, lunch, and dinner, to our children or pets, to our most recent manicure.  The age of the selfie, in every incarnation, is upon us.  So, how hard would this task actually be?  In fact, some of us may be doing it already without even realizing it.  Many of us are probably Tweeting and Instagramming away this challenge as I type this post up.  But then I wondered, if we took on this challenge in terms of detailing one year of our life and our actual, personal experiences... what would you take pictures of?  After 365 days, what could a future ancestor deduce about you?

I suppose I should explain how this connects to the scientific research I am studying right now to make this question carry a little more weight.  A particular study (that I am talking about here) asked young people to think about ancestors before performing in some cognitive testing.  But it wasn't just "Think about an ancestor."  The direction was to really envision the day to day life of an ancestor.  What kind of work did he or she do, were they married, did they have children, where did they live, etc.  So, in my recent musings, I tied that into this seemingly fun challenge.  If you had 365 chances to express who you are to someone who does not exist yet but who has a very vested interest in the outcome of your life, what snapshots would you document for him or her?  What would those screen caps of your life say about you?  Who are you?  And how can you help your future posterity with that specific knowledge?

Do you know what would make this exercise even better, though?  What if you challenged a child or a grandchild to do this with you?  You could even do it with a brother, sister, or a spouse.  The possibilities are endless.  My sister even did this with her husband when he was deployed in Qatar. You could swap pictures daily on various social media platforms like Facebook or Instagram, rather than waiting until the end of a year to swap pictures.  Would that alter the kinds of pictures you would take?  What about your grandchild?  Would that change how you perceive each other or what you learn about one another?  Wouldn't it bring you closer to each other?  In fact, I'd like to challenge you to try this with your own family and see what happens (and tell me about it!) over the course of the year.  What a great way to interact and grow closer to each other and if you utilize the technology your children and grandchildren use I know it will alter your relationship in the most fun and wonderful way.

So, leave it to me to take something like taking pictures and turn it into a moment to possibly change the entire course of a future child, grandchild, or great-great-great-granchild's life, but I believe the idea has huge merit.  I guess the real point is this: every day of our lives is a snapshot.  It's a still frame of who you are and what you are experiencing.  That has the power to change someone else's perspective and life.  So when we're all "in the trenches" and thinking what we wouldn't give for life to give us a brief cease fire from all the stress and chaos and perpetual motion, just remember this--you are shaping someone else's destiny by your everyday acts.  Consider them closely, document them, share them, and rejoice in them.  People will be feeling your ripple in the water for a very long time.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Cast Your Bread Upon The Waters

For you will find it after many days.  Come and listen to my real life experience with this, because it is all kinds of crazy awesome!

First, some back story.  Hovorka is of Czech descent, this much I know.  However, as far as Czech customs, not so much.  I married into that name, Kim's Great Grandparents came to Chicago from Czechoslovakia and Kim's uncle has taken that part of the family to do research on.  Over this last year or so as more Czech records have become available, I've gotten curious but it is still Kim's uncle's domain so I'm a bit rusty on the ins and outs of the deep roots in my husband's Hovorka history.  I really don't know much about the history even though I carry that name.  To quote Dickens, "This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate."

I have spent a great deal of time in pulling together my Zap the Grandma Gap Children's Activity Books for  British, German, Swedish, and Civil War ancestry.  I am also working on some for Jewish, Mormon, Pioneer, and Danish ancestry right now that we hope to have ready for Christmas.  But, I know so little about Czech ancestry and knew that was an undertaking I could probably never get to, as much as my heartstrings pulled me in that direction.  So, how should my bread return to me after the work I have set out for others?  The answer comes in the form of Texas.  More specifically the Texas Czech Genealogical Society.  That's right folks, I went to a genealogical conference and found help with my family's genealogy.  Why am I even surprised?

I was walking through the vendor hall at FGS in San Antonio when I saw their booth and stopped to see some books like mine but for Czech ancestry!!  Can you believe it?  I'm telling you, doors open in the most unexpected ways and places when you reach out and help others with their genealogy.  Again, no surprise, right?  Look what I found:
I was so excited!  This is just what I have been doing and to see it for Czech culture was so exciting and crazy and thrilling and it seriously made my day.  Of course I had to purchase these.  The likelihood of me ever being able to make Czech ancestry activity books is pretty minimal at the moment but seeing as how it's already done, I thought I would share it with you.  No point in re-inventing the wheel, after all.  Their website is currently under construction but I wanted to pass along their contact info just in case any of you, like me, are looking for something to incorporate your Czech ancestry into your family or holiday traditions.  You can reach them at 979-848-6517.

The activity books were actually compiled and written by Daniela Mahoney, Catherine Macaro, and Mary Jo Macaro and can be ordered directly from Daniela's website.  She also has lots of great Czech related products and books and I actually just ordered some more things for some Christmas presents (Shhh...Don't tell my kids.  I'm really sure they aren't reading Mom's blog so if one of you squeal, I'm going to know).  I am so excited to see someone doing this for Czech traditions and I have been quite giddy this morning flipping through the books I already have.  I can't wait to get the new ones I just ordered.

So in the end, the wonder of this story is this: keep doing what you are doing, even if you feel like you are making little progress with your own family.  What you send out always returns in the most unexpected of ways.  This experience has been such a reminder of that for me. 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Now That You Might Have Some Free Time...

That was kind of a joke, actually.  However, with most schools back in session all across the US (if not now, very soon), many of us parents and grandparents tend to sigh a big sigh and think, "Now I can finally get back to my personal projects."  Just me?  I thought there might be a few others out there who are feeling the same as I am these days.  So, naturally, I hit up my trusty Pinterest account for some excellent go-to ideas that some folks might have a moment to tackle.  I am particularly fond of this one, which I happen to think would make a fabulous Christmas gift for a baby or toddler.  If you start now, you could probably have an over-the-top amazing version ready and wrapped before Halloween.  Hallelujah, anyone?

This adorable idea comes from and I have to say, I really love it.  The link will take you to the page where you can purchase the pattern to make yourself, if you choose.  However, a handy-dandy Google Search rendered an amazing amount of similar projects that had my intergenerational-linking-heart going pitter-patter!  You can see some amazing examples here, here, and here.  Or, just do a search for family picture quiet book and go from there.

I actually did something like this for my own children many a moon ago and seeing all of these great versions above got me searching through my own closets.  I had a moment of happy reminiscing as I flipped through these old books that my children toted to church and used so often.  As you can see by the pictures below, the apples on our family tree have long since been lost and the book was well loved.  When it comes time for me to be a grandma, I will be remaking new versions of these books and I will definitely be utilizing some of the fun ideas above, not to mention revisiting the originals shown below.

Well worn and well loved by my children.
We had apples that attached to the tree but I couldn't find them.
Something else that I did when my children were young was to pick up little dollar store flip-book photo albums and I just rotated out family pictures as I printed them.  Such a little thing but such a big impact for my children who loved seeing pictures of themselves, mom and dad, grandparents, aunts, uncles and so on.  It was such an easy thing to update and replicate with three little ones.  Little picture books can be very involved or very simple and the effect is the same--young children love seeing the people who love them.

This idea would make a really lovely gift or a fantastic surprise to tuck away in a diaper bag (sort of an ace in the pocket for a particularly rough moment).  More importantly though, it will show a young child or grandchild that he or she is part of something bigger.  Starting early, the security that comes from knowing that there are many people who love us and are invested in us has the power to set our personal "self-talk" in positive mode from the beginning.  That in an of itself is a pretty potent cure for future bumps in the road of life.  So, if you are looking for a way to plant the Family Tree Seed early in a loved one's life, I can't imagine a better starting point than baby's first family scrapbook.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Family History Benefits For Youth, Part 2

Last week we talked about the academic benefits of including family history research in your child or grandchild's extra-curricular activities or home school curriculum.  Hopefully you were able to see the adaptability of family history for course of studies as well as the short and long range academic benefits it can create for the youth in your life.  Today, I'd like to address the emotional benefits our youth receive from being involved in family history research.  They are far reaching and extremely powerful.  I have seen the benefits in my own family and also witnessed it in the families of countless others.  Family history work really is a Family Adhesive (the title of one of my Rootstech 2015 lectures).  With that as my preface, let's get going.

I discuss a great deal of this in my book and it is something, as I have said, that I have very personal experience with.  When your child or grandchild has an understanding of where he or she came from, it can and will completely change their present self-perception and the trajectory of their future.  I call this perspective in my book.  Learning about an ancestor and living conditions he or she faced helps a child understand where his grandfather's work ethic or her grandmother's tight financial management stems from (not uncommon traits for those who lived through the great depression).  Learning about those ancestors can place a missing puzzle piece in your child's understanding of the family dynamics.  It will bring compassion, sympathy, and even empathy for different traits--positive and negative--of your family dynamics.  As a result of that, your child can (with your help) become a transitional member for your family where negative behaviors may be discovered.  Understanding why certain family members behave certain ways due to their research and discovery of their ancestor's lives can alter your child's perspective for the positive.  You and your child can work together to break the chain of negative habits and thought processes if they exist by learning how they were developed in the first place.  Family history research will also reinforce positive generational traits for your child as well.  The idea of being able to accomplish something because "It's in my DNA" has a profound impact on the mental stability and emotional security for all of us, our children included.

We all, whether we realize or admit it or not, have a personal narrative that constantly runs in our heads.  We tend to fall into patterns and behaviors exhibited to us.  We develop our sense of self-esteem based on these life experiences and this becomes our constant, and very often unconscious, internal dialogue.  By understanding who we are descended from and the conditions those ancestors endured, we are better able to change our personal narrative.  Can you imagine how powerful that is for a child who lives in a world of "Once Upon A Times" and "Happily Ever Afters" to know that they have the power to change their own personal fairytale?  What about for teenagers who feel the constant pressure in today's social media savvy world of creating an appealing narrative for themselves?  Understanding where they came from is the key to our youth unlocking the gates of their personal story and slaying the dragons of their personal trials.  Studies have shown that greater knowledge and understanding of family history can create increased self-esteem and personal resilience.  Our youth gain a sense of being in the driver's seat when they are able to view the map of their history and they are more likely to make better choices for their journey ahead when armed with that knowledge.

In addition to all of this, doing family history work together adheres us to one another.  We feel a love and kinship for ancestors long since passed.  We feel a love and appreciation for each other while we work together to find information and process it together.  Your family history is yours.  No one else shares that with you or your children and grandchildren.  It belongs to you and to them only.  No one can take it from you and you cannot give it to someone else.  The bonding, emotional and physical, that that information and understanding create is profound.  When your children and grandchild go out into the world, knowing that their family understands them and has lived through the exact same experiences as them will bind them to you in ways nothing else can.  In the roughest moments, they will have a sense of belonging and security, knowing that they are part of something bigger than a difficult moment or a bad day.  The world is a tough place these days, but wrapping your children and grandchildren in the security blanket that is family history will not only bring warmth and comfort, it has the power to act as an armor when they face those personal dragons along the way.