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What Grandpa Knows: The Value of Family History

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Will your family be meeting up this summer with members of the older generation? If so, be sure to take advantage of the learning opportunity old folks present. Nothing makes history come to life like realizing that people you know lived through some of it.

Most students think of history as dry and boring. School lessons tend to focus on names and dates and “big picture” events like wars and technological inventions. That’s important but it’s not relevant to a kid’s here-and-now. What makes it relevant is talking with someone who grew up in a different era and can tell stories out of the past that make the past come to life.

My father was eight when the Great Depression hit. His stories of the hard-scrabble life in South Dakota in those times made it real to me. He told stories of the tricks he and his brothers played with each other, the way parents helped their children stay warm on the way to school in an unheated, horse-drawn ‘school bus,’ and his striking out on his own as a young teen to make his way in the world – these give shape to the Depression in ways history books could not.

What do you know about your own parents’ or grandparents’ early life and times? What do your children know about those? Take advantage of opportunities to weave stories from the past into the conversation. Family visits this summer might be a good place to start.

The best way to do this is not to assign your child an investigative reporting assignment but to let her listen in to a conversation you have yourself with an older relative. Ask your elder about something very specific – what was her grade school like and how did she get there? What did they do on the Fourth of July? What pets did she have? Just let the conversation flow. You’ll likely find your child listening in and asking questions himself pretty soon.

One memorable kitchen-table conversation of my youth wandered into my great-grandmother’s tales of ghostly occurrences, including a haunted spinning wheel. You may be startled by what your own relatives have to tell about all sorts of things.

We all tend to imagine that the older generation was always old. But these folks were kids once too. They are like time-travelers from the past, who can tell your kids how daily life was like long ago. Ask them to share their travelers’ tales. Together make history come to life.

© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.