Family Connection in Isolation

How family history projects can inspire kids and motivate grandparents

My girls learned about two of their great-grandfathers’ service in WWII

As parents roll-out social distancing, optimistically making lists and preparing for weeks at home with kids needing both educational stimulation and reassuring, I’ve put family history projects on our daily to-do list. Many of us now face the grim reality of being separated from beloved parents and grandparents. In turn, many of them have closets and attics full of family photos, clippings, albums, and ephemera they long to share with the next generation. 

What if we find new ways to connect across the generations by sharing stories and images of family members who faced adversity and rose to the challenge? WWI, the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, The Great Depression, WWII, and the polio epidemic in the 1950s, our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents experienced crises, which forced drastic paradigm shifts and asked them to sacrifice for the greater good. Today, many of our screen-obsessed kids haven’t yet connected the history they learn in school to their own families. Spending time on Facetime with Boomer grandparents can offer context and hope for upper elementary and middle school students. Ask Grammie what life was like during the polio years, or if Papa remembers his own parents talking about WWII and The Depression. Encouraging our isolated parents to sift through boxes they’ve been promising to tackle for years and then share what they find via text or email not only checks off chores and helps us connect, but also provides digital copies that can easily be saved and re-shared online.

During this time of social distancing, consider signing up for a 2-week free trial on Why not let your kids make a family tree to connect names, dates, and places to the photos you find? Ancestry lets you build a tree, search vast archives of records from around the world, and upload records and images. The best part? You can access your tree, even if you cancel the membership when the free trial expires.

Great-grandma Ilka in her Red Cross uniform circa 1918
Great-great-grandma Esther serving the troops at a WWI canteen

What will your kids learn while researching their family tree? Beyond the obvious history lessons, reading, math, geography, and other social studies of individuals and societies are connected to our family tree. Generations grow exponentially: 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great-grandparents, and so on. My daughter must construct a math problem to figure out what year it was when Nana was her age and another if she wants to know how old Nana was during the polio outbreak of 1958. Where did Nana live as a little girl? Canada, Minnesota, and North Dakota. Where did Grammie grow up? On a farm in Indiana. Can you find their hometowns on a map? How long would it take to drive there if we plan a road trip? Maybe while we’re stuck at home, we could dream of someday traveling to a homeland overseas.

There’s a lot to discover when you set the kids on a quest, unleash the power of the internet, and encourage excursions down historical rabbit holes. Nationalstate, and local genealogical societies host extensive websites and offer simple tutorials. Countless museumsarchives, and other free resources help pinpoint military service history (in case you find that great-great-grandpa served in WWI but are missing details). Even YouTube is filled with how-to videos to get you started on your genealogical journey. Truthfully, there is more information available online than we could sift through in weeks — or even months– of isolation.

Looking for a silver lining in the face of the Covid-19 crisis, I’ve set an overly ambitious agenda for my family’s isolation. In addition to working two jobs from home, repainting the first floor of our house, starting seedlings indoors, reorganizing every closet, and getting my children to help between school assignments, I’m tackling a collaborative family history project. Encouraging my parents to sift and sort through the boxes and albums in their house, then share the good stuff they discover with their children and grandchildren. In the end, if my girls emerge from this social isolation with a deeper connection to who they are, an understanding of where they came from, and an appreciation of the generations before them, then we will not just survive this latest episode in our family history, but we will find a way to emerge smarter and stronger through it.

9x great-grandma Sarah Bassett’s 1692 arrest warrant for witchcraft from Salem, MA