Research Tips for Beginners

Often our first encounter with genealogy is in grade school. Our teacher decides to do a ‘family tree.’ It is often seen as a simple exercise: use  some type of chart - a tree, or brackets (like in basketball tournaments), or a classical ancestor chart (like royalty uses in Europe). In many families, children fill in the names of their siblings: (brother[s] and/or sister[s]), and their mother and father. Sometimes grandparents are listed as well, particularly if this ‘family tree’ exercise is done on a day when grandparents are invited to the school to sit in their grandchildren’s classes for a while.

While many elementary school age children do this exercise with no problem, it is not that simple for many other children in today’s world. Often, children today are being raised in a single-parent family because one the parents died early from disease, or from an accident, or violently from a crime, or they are divorced. If both parents have died from an accident, such as an automobile collision, children may be in foster care, sometimes with relatives who have asked to raise the children, or in foster care with foster parents who are unrelated to the children. Sometimes children are put up for adoption, giving rise to birthparents and adoptive parents. Another situation arises when the children’s parents have divorced, and one or both parents have remarried, often bringing into the family new siblings. Another situation arises when the family situation may be a two-parent family where both parents are women, or where both parents are men. Finally, due to infertility of either spouse, having a child may involve a sperm donor and/or a surrogate mother (who may, or may not, be genetically related to the desired child depending on the method of fertilization used).

Because courtship and marriage are filled with strong emotions such as romantic love, often including varying levels of a sexual relationship, and usually an overwhelming desire to have children, families are complicated. Consequently, the questions that form the basis of genealogy: when did you meet, when did you marry, when and how many children did you have, may seem simple, they often bring up all kinds of sensitive situations and stressful emotions for parents and grand-parents.

If you are a school student who is old enough to complete a ‘family tree’ assignment on your own, and you begin by asking your parent[s] the basic set of questions, please be sensitive to your parent[s]’ feelings. If your questions are answered quickly and with detail, that’s great. If there is a hesitation, or an odd look, or you get a ‘bad’ feeling, respect your parent[s]’ desire for privacy. Fill out the information that you can fill out in your chart, and ‘let it go.’ You will have plenty of time and opportunity to ask questions in your adult years, particularly if and when you give birth to your own children. When you do get family information, check out our family charts to see if one of them works for you.

If you are a parent of a school student who is too young to complete a ‘family tree’ assignment on their own, please help them as much as you are comfortably able to. You can download simple or complicated family charts that you might want to use instead of the ‘one size fits all’ chart handed out at school. Choose the chart that best handles your current situation, based on your personal decision about how much  disclosure will occur, and go from there. 

We sincerely hope these early encounters with genealogy will begin a lifetime interest about ancestors in your family, as it has for us.


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