I want to share with you an incredible parenting tool that we stumbled upon back when we lived in Arizona. Those summers were unbelievable: you go to a covered park at 8am (right before it reaches 100 degrees) trying to “get your kids’ wiggles out”, but they aren’t even wiggly yet! Come 3:00, you’ve played all your indoor games, you’ve read all your books, you’ve swam in your pool twice, and you are already on Zillow, desperately scrolling through houses for sale in Antarctica. Spoiler alert: there aren’t many listings down there.
During one of those inescapably scorching summers, my husband and I read a fascinating article entitled, “The Stories That Bind Us” (Bruce Feiler, New York Times, March 15, 2013). This article explained new research showing that children who knew their family stories were more resilient and performed better on every psychological test the researcher administered. Wow! I had studied psychology in college, so this finding was especially fascinating to me. Could simply sharing our family history stories really strengthen my children as much as this article promised? I decided to give it a try. Plus, I was desperate to do something to enrich our time as we were trapped in our air conditioned mid-summer bunker!
My experiment began simple. Each Sunday afternoon I told my three little boys about an ancestors with a pretty unique story. With crayons, they scribbled the stories on blank paper. I added a caption, then we put the stories in a binder to enjoy. Over the course of the summer, I added a few more family history activities to the mix—playing memory and Bingo, telling ancestor bedtime stories, making old recipes, etc. While my husband and I didn’t see huge benefits immediately, we had faith that making our ancestors come alive to our children would eventually have the desired results.
A while later, our oldest son showed us a great result of our efforts. His class was doing a “Be the Teacher” segment, and he had the option of teaching his fellow third graders a topic. Some of his classmates chose to teach about origami or chess, but Samuel immediately chose to share the story of his great-grandfather who was a fighter pilot in World War 2. About this, Samuel wrote, “I feel special when I hear stories of my ancestors doing amazing things and think Merrill’s story is really amazing. Him doing brave things makes me want to, too!”
It worked! Sharing our family stories was working! I realized I needed to share with other parents how amazing this was, so I brainstormed 100 more activities to share family stories in fun, interactive, and meaningful ways. A publisher saw my ideas and wanted to turn them into a book. One year later, the book is here and I am spreading the great news that sharing your family stories really helps kids! Learning about their ancestors helps children gain the sense of belonging that they deeply desire, but sometimes struggle to find in the outside world.
This book is called “Turning Little Hearts—Over 90 Activities to Connect Children with their Ancestors”. It is packed with fun activities such as treasure hunts, playing games, dressing up, fort building, picture coloring, language learning, jewelry making, puzzle solving, flower planting, birthday celebrating, map making, poem writing, and more. Each activity begins with the parent or grandparent telling a brief story about themselves or an ancestor, then doing an activity with the child to reinforce and make the story real.
We have had so many great family moments with these activities. Last month, my children dressed in my dad’s old clothes and acted like professors, because that’s what my dad was. They wagged a long pointer at their siblings and taught us about my father’s favorite buildings. Not only did we laugh like crazy, but we learned about my late father and came to love what he loved. When my son commented about one particularly unique building we drove by, I knew that that activity had sunk in!
Not only have our kids been strengthened by these activities, but I have been enriched by them as well. My grandmother, who passed away when I was too young to remember her, sang a beautiful lullaby to her children. With the help of my uncle and an old recording I found, I’ve reconstructed the music she wrote and now I can sing it to my own kids. Did I do it for them? Yes. But does it bless me, too? Absolutely yes! As I sing it, I feel closer to my grandmother. I feel like I am not alone in the difficult task of raising little ones. She did it. Her mother did it. I can do it, too. Just like my kids are drawing strength and identity from these stories, I am too!
This book is perfect for anyone who already loves family history and is looking for fun ways to share stories with young people. Grandparents—do these activities with your grandkids when they visit! Parents—do these activities at dinnertime or on a Sunday afternoon with your kids! Additionally, this book is perfect for families who currently know little about their ancestors, but who are looking for good activities to do with their kids. Activities with an ancestor twist are far more meaningful than what you find while simply searching for “fun stuff to do with kids” on Pinterest.
I believe that making our ancestors come alive to our children has power. They will feel they are part of something bigger. They will feel secure when their own life gets crazy and when bad things happen in the world. They will feel confident that they can succeed. As grandparents and parents, we can tap into the power of family stories. I know our children can be better when they remember who they are… no matter how hot it is outside.
Charlotte Barnes 1/13/2020