Why Knowing Your Family Tree Matters

Some families keep extensive family histories dating back many generations, while others struggle to recall the names of grandpa’s brothers. But whether our family tree is a giant oak or a young sapling, understanding our roots has some surprising benefits.

Knowing where we come from helps us figure out where we’re going and feel more secure, says Emory University psychologist Marshall Duke in a 2013 New York Times article. Two decades ago, Duke and his colleagues asked children 20 questions about their families. Surprisingly, the more details children knew about their families, the more control they felt over their lives, and the more resilient they were to challenges.

Knowing details such as where your grandmother grew up, what family recipes your aunts and uncles enjoyed, or what your father liked to do as a child creates a family narrative. And this narrative, experts say, helps us define values and beliefs, and serves as an anchor for children and adults alike. During times of stress, this family narrative can provide comfort and security.

Want to know more about your family history? Thanks to technology, it’s never been easier to find out about your family tree. Below are a few ideas to help you get started.

Visit a genealogy website.
There are many genealogy websites on the Internet now, offering services that range from a simple search for a name to finding photos and stories. Explore a variety of sites, and then go with one that looks like a good fit. Family Search, for instance, even offers you a place to tell and preserve your family story — and for other family members to contribute.

Interview an older relative.
Send a relative a list of questions ahead of time, and schedule a time for a personal interview. Record or video the interview, and make a written transcript, too. These interviews offer an intimate glimpse of a loved one’s life, along with insight into the lifestyles and cultures of the past.

Round up mementos.
Old photo albums, letters, diaries, and other momentos are invaluable for creating a family narrative. As you look at old photo albums or read through letters and diaries, long-forgotten relatives become real people who lived, loved and struggled. Explore them together with your children, and see what lessons you can glean. Make sure these materials are properly stored to preserve them for future generations.

Get to know your extended family.
Families today are spread far and wide, but that doesn’t mean you can’t stay close. Plan regular Skype calls, create a Facebook family group to share photos, or get together for holidays and vacations. Develop traditions, such as an annual talent show or gift-giving party.

For better or worse, your family is part of who you are. Dig into the past to learn more about your ancestors, and preserve their stories for your children. Also work on developing strong bonds with your extended family — even if they do things differently from your own immediate family, you can still build a relationship that benefits everyone involved.