• Clémence R. Scouten

Gone with the wind… what is lost when family history isn’t saved

Updated: Mar 25

Family history exists for all of us. Good, bad, sparse, bountiful… everyone has stories about their family, and that’s a really special thing.

The challenge is getting it from an oral form to a written (or audio/video) form. Family history is what we make it and how we share it. Most people like the idea of passing family history down to future generations, but not that many people do it in a way that ensures the stories will last the test of time.

Why not? Good question… Especially when you stop to think about the risks of NOT documenting your family history.

Risk One: The information about family will permanently disappear

You know more about your family than your kids do. Period. How could it be otherwise? You know your parents better than your kids do, just as your parents know their own parents better than you do. Every generation loses information about the one before.

Family history is not boring! Younger kids may not appreciate it yet, but they will when they have their own children.

The trick is transferring that knowledge forward. One of the challenges to overcome is getting discouraged. It’s too hard emotionally… or too overwhelming… or too much work... Worst of all is the false idea that no one will find it interesting. You can read a whole post on why worrying about how interesting it is, is a terrible misunderstanding of why family history matters.

Whatever the reason though, the natural attrition of family lore is worsened when people intentionally withhold information. Genealogy research is an option to the extent the written records exits. But family history is made so much richer when it includes stories, too.

It’s family stories that make genealogy come alive. That’s where it gets exciting. That’s where patterns in behavior emerge, and inspirational and cautionary stories stop us in our tracks.

So, if you don’t do it, who will? And what will happen to the information you have that isn’t being documented?

Risk two: Family members don’t benefit from knowing their family has a past

Family history is good for us. Really. It’s actually a proven fact. Robyn Fivush, Ph.D., studies this field down at Emory University, and has conducted test after test to understand whether there is a benefit in knowing the stories of one’s family.

And there is.

According to her, “children and adolescents who know more of their family stories show higher well-being on multiple measures, including higher self-esteem, higher academic competence, higher social competence, and fewer behavior problems.”

The best part is that it’s not the quality or quantity of stories, it’s the process of sharing them that matters. People who participate in sharing this information just have a better sense of belonging than people who don’t.

It also helps people realize that success and failure exist throughout a family. This can help lighten the pressure people put on themselves to avoid mistakes and appear perfect. When you’re talking about a family, there are always success stories and tragedies. That’s just life.

When people decide their family isn’t interesting enough, or it’s not worth the trouble, they are robbing their kids, and generations beyond that, of knowing how they fit into the larger narrative of their own family.

In a time when so many parents struggle with the negative effects of social media (i.e. kids being influenced by the fiction of outsiders), it seems like such a gift to know that talking about family can have a truly positive, long-term effect.

Risk three: Denying simple pleasures

Separate from whether or not you believe that family history is good for us, there is the simple pleasure of knowing and talking about loved ones. Sometimes that’s referred to as honoring someone’s memory, other times it’s called nostalgia, or perhaps even being sentimental.

Nothing is wrong with any of those things!

Believe it or not (here we go again with the social scientists!) there are people who have studied nostalgia and its effect on humans. Guess what? It’s good for us.

Remembering good times or loved ones actually keeps us warm. It makes us feel good. It contributes to our sense of belonging and ability to connect with others. And when we remember a loved one, we remember the love that existed, and how it felt.

I’m not suggesting you spend all your time focused on people you have lost, or glorifying good times passed, but allowing the stories of those times to be rolled forward is a good thing for many reasons.

You have the power to document your family history the way you want. You can choose the stories that really matter, and control the narrative.

I know it’s hard to carve out time to focus on something that has no deadline and is outside of our everyday activities and comfort zone. And I know it’s hard to know where to start. But even if you just take the time to scribble some notes down, or record yourself telling a story, you will find that it’s easier than you think to create a body of work related to your family history.

Don’t believe me? Give it a try right now. Hit record on your phone and tell your favorite childhood story. Do another one tomorrow. And another next week. Before you know it, you’ll have a collection of stories told the way you want, and a meaningful gift for people you love.


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