Tree and Leaf: A Child’s Place in Family and Social History

Tree and Leaf FY

Every child needs a sense of belonging– indeed, every person does.  Understanding our place in history, in our whakapapa (family tree) is about understanding not only where we have come from, but about having a base, a grounding place to kick off from, so that we can move forward through our own lives.  Our family history can be a source of pride and inspiration, as we see how those who came before us struggled with and and overcame times of trouble, both within the family and within the social setting of their times.  I believe that this is important for all children and particularly for those who have been “displaced” or experienced difficulties within their own families and lives.

Very often we human beings get bogged down in the “here and now” of our busy lives and this is particularly so for those of us who have children.  I guess this is the reason why many people don’t take an active interest in their family tree or history until they reach retirement age– if they do at all.  For children lucky enough to have grandparents (or great-grandparents) still living and in close proximity, a vital link to family history still exists.  Encouraging our children to strengthen their relationships with the elder members of our families gives them an opportunity to tap into their own heritage.

My Great-grandmother as a young woman, 1902

My Great-grandmother as a young woman, 1902

As parents there are also ways in which we can “link” with history and help our children gain this sense of belonging.  I’m going to set out some ideas here for making history “come alive” for children: they are ideas which have worked for me.  Of course kids, like adults, are all different and some will have more interest in topics such as family history than others.  It does help, however, if history is presented in a colourful and interesting way– not just a series of old documents, photos and a big, sprawling family tree diagram.  In the case of family history, it is important for children to see their own “link in the chain”  to the past and future and for explanations of who various people are or were in relation to the child to be set out clearly.   I guess I’m a bit biased on this topic, as I love history.  My parents had me young, so I had all four of my grandparents until age 27 and can clearly remember one of my great-grandparents.  I had a close relationship with the “elders” in my family and enjoyed hearing about their lives: in particular, as a child, I liked stories about their childhood experiences and about what it was like growing up when they were young.

Nanny FY

My grandmother (whom we called “Nanny”) aged 1 year with her mother, 1917

The “Family Wall”

In our home we have what we call the “family wall”.  It’s in the hall of our house which, luckily, is wide with quite a lot of wall space.  It took a long time to make, we began it when my first son was just a baby (we moved into this house when he was 4 months old) and built it up little by little until it reached the present day.  Now we just add to it every year or two.  As they grow older, the kids enjoy looking back and seeing pictures of themselves when they were toddlers and babies and, going back further, to pictures of us when we were children and babies.  We decided to take the “family wall” back in time as far as we could.  The first picture on the family wall was taken around 1860 and is of my great great great grandfather.  It took a bit of work to dig that up, it was on an old glass photo plate in my Aunty’s garage.

Great great great Grandad in his frame on the "Family Wall"

Great great great Grandad in his frame on the “Family Wall”

It was also damaged and in need of some restoration.  It’s definitely worth taking the time to do such things, however, as it’s a “one off” job which leaves a legacy not only for our own children, but also for their children and generations beyond.  Our children find some of the photos on the “Family Wall” interesting just because of their sheer age.  They can also learn about photography through the ages– when the first colour photos came into being and when there was a “photo explosion” and taking pictures became affordable for anyone.  You may be thinking that you don’t have any old family photos.  I went round my family on both sides (and my husband did too) for the photos we now have on our wall and we were surprised at some of the interesting ones that surfaced.  We both also felt that, by constructing the “Family Wall” for the kids, we learned a lot ourselves about our own family trees.  For me a lot of faces appeared to go with names and characters from family stories that I’d been hearing since childhood.

Arty Family Wall

Learning about Family History (Whakapapa) through pictures: “The Family Wall”

Even if you have just one or two really old photographs, it is good to display them somewhere or put them in a clear file (a good idea if you don’t have a lot of wall space) so that they are accessible to your children.  You can look at the pictures with your kids and tell them who was who in a way that they will understand, like: “That’s your Nana’s Dad when he was about the same age as you are now.”  Drawing a simplified family tree of direct descendants also helps, as can a recitation of the “direct line” (such as is done in the Maori “Mihimihi”).  Our kids particularly like any pictures of children on the “Family Wall”– whether they are people still living whom they know or ancestors long since deceased.

Peter & 2 Sheep Arty

Great Uncle Colin (known as Konie) and two pet lambs! c.1928

My Grandfather (in hat) and his Siblings, c.1924

My Grandfather (right, between girls) and his Siblings, c.1924

“Projects” about Family History

My seven year old son bears an uncanny resemblance to my maternal grandfather and has taken an interest in him and his life.  Just before ANZAC Day this year, his class talked about family who were involved in wars and we looked at pictures of my grandparents during World War II.  Eventually, we created a poster about “Nanny and Papa” (my grandparents).  We both enjoyed this and it was a reason to read through some of my grandfather’s letters written to my grandmother when he was away in Europe (in one of these he proposes to her!).  Without the impetus of the “project”, we may not have taken the time to read the letters, whist busy with our lives.  It also made the information more interesting and more concise for “sharing time” with his class at school.  My son was fascinated when he realised that, had his great-grandfather been killed during the second world war, his Nana, his Mum (me) and he himself would never have existed.  Such projects don’t need to be especially complex (particularly with younger kids) and can make learning about family history fun.  Similarly, interviewing an older member of the family and creating a poster of the information can be a great learning experience.

The "Nanny and Papa" Poster.

The “Nanny and Papa” Poster.

Small, manageable chunks

Another thing I find useful in igniting our children’s curiosity about their ancestors is to create a small booklet about one person or branch of the family tree.  This then becomes a “story book” which can be read over and over.  If your family has a well-researched family tree or, as my father’s father’s branch has, a book written about the family, you could condense this and focus on direct ancestors or interesting stories which you feel would particularly grab a child’s attention.

history Collage Arty

Children become more grounded and secure if they know their whakapapa (family history).  It anchors them in who they are and their place in time and in the world.  Every child comes from somewhere.  Every family has its history (some may take a little more digging for than others), without which we are like wind-blown autumn leaves, “here” in the present, but unsure how or why.  Through the eyes of a child, “belonging” within the “big family” also gives them a sense of belonging in the “global” family: a sense of where things were at before he or she came into the world and where this might lead to in the future.

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