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Editor’s note: This is the third article in a three part series on “Mormon Grandparenting”. The first two articles can be read here. Because of the popularity of the series the Eyres may continue it and write additional installments. If you would like to see that happen, hit the “comment” button and express your feelings.
On the wall of our vacation home, where we gather our family from far and wide each summer, is a very large oil painting (a product of some art classes I (Linda) took once. It is a large tree with lots of branches and lots of roots. It is painted so that there is an above ground part and an underground part. Above is the tree itself, with our picture on the trunk and one of our children’s pictures on each of the main branches. Under the ground are the symmetrical roots—four of them coming down from the trunk and each splitting into two to form a second root-level of 8 and then each splitting again to create the lowest level of 16 roots.
Many years ago, we put the best headshot photos we could find of our parents (our children’s 4 grandparents) on the first four roots, and of our grandparents (our children’s 8 great grandparents) on the next deeper root-row of 8. And through a bit of “Family Search” research we were able to also find photos of each of our eight great grandparents (our kids’ 16 great great grandparents.)
Then we compiled the stories we had heard and the ones we were able to find on genealogical and ancestry web sites, and we wrote up each of them as a children’s story, in children’s language. We found and wrote at least one story about each of the 28 people in the roots (below ground) part of the painting. These 28 noble souls are our kids grandparents, great grandparents and great-great grandparents. Having their individual pictures visible on their individual roots on our family tree is what introduced these wondrous people to our children; and finding one interesting story from each of their lives is what helped our kids to feel some familiarity, to feel like they really knew each of them a bit.
It was the stories that did it. Simple stories that our kids could relate to, which we wrote up in kids’ language. Here is one of those stories to illustrate the point.
The Reason We’re Not Billionaires
Your great grandma Eyre, who held some of you when you were babies, had a grandpa named Sanford Bingham.
When Sanford was a little boy, he lived in Vermont. He was the oldest son of Erastus Bingham and Lucinda Gates. When he was 12 years old, the missionaries came and taught him and his family the Gospel. They were baptized in November of 1833, some of the earliest converts to the Restored Church.
They sold their farm in Concord in 1836 and went to Kirtland, Ohio to be with Saints; and later moved to Nauvoo where Erastus and his sons helped build the temple.
In 1846, mobs drove the saints out of Illinois and the Bingham family headed for Utah with Brigham Young. On the way, on July 18, 1847, Sanford married Martha Ann Lewis on the banks of the Platt River in Nebraska. Parley P. Pratt performed the marriage. Their wedding feast was cooked over burning buffalo chips because there was no wood in that part of the country.
When the Binghams got to the Salt Lake Valley in September of that year, they acquired a grazing permit in what is now Bingham Canyon. Sanford and his brother Thomas herded cattle and sheep there.
One day the two brothers discovered copper ore in the canyon. They went and asked Brigham Young if he thought they should pursue mining instead of ranching and farming. Brigham said “leave it in the ground boys, and you will be happier men.” He may have known that riches could cause more problems than they solved at that point, and the brothers followed his advice because they believed in him as a Prophet.
Today, Bingham Canyon is the site of the largest open pit copper mine in the world.
The Ancestor stories don’t have to be about pioneers (although all ancestors are pioneers in some ways.) Some of our children’s favorites were simple stories like Grandpa Dan and the Cat that Came Back about a cat that young Dan in Sweden kept trying to give away, only to have it find its way home; and Grandpa Dean and the Car Wreck where 16 year old Dean hit a parked car late one night when no one saw him and was honest enough to go back the next day and find the owner and pay for the repairs.
Our Experience Updated
Well, time passes, and now our children are parents of our grandchildren, and some have their own family trees in their own houses; and on their trees, we are no longer the trunks, we are now two of the four primary roots. We are underground now rather than above ground. And you know what? We like being roots. We think it puts us in a good position to tell our grandkids stories about our parents and grandparents and all of their other (deeper) roots.
In the Church, we are light years ahead of the rest of the world in terms of Genealogical interest in and research. Family Search has become a masterpiece website allowing us to access every date, story, photo and document that anyone has put up about any given ancestor.
The question is, are we USING this wellspring of knowledge and identity with our children to strengthen our family narrative and build their bigger-than-self identity?
Ancestors and Resilience
Empirical, outside-the-church research is now suggesting something we have long known—namely that one of the very best things we can do for our grandkids is to teach them about their ancestors and give them the identity-strengthening blessing of a real “Family Narrative.”
We have enjoyed some association with New York Times writer Bruce Feiler who confirms in his own extensive research and writing what he told us in person—namely that kids who feel a family identity larger than themselves and who know something about the lives of their ancestors are more confident and more resilient than those who don’t.
Feiler likes to refer to an Emory University study, which concluded, “the more children know about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem.” Bruce tells us that the most useful and beneficial types of family histories are “osculating;” that is, they tell about the hard times as well as the good times of these grandpas and grandmas.
“Children who have the most self-confidence,” the study concluded, “have a strong ‘intergenerational self.’ They know they belong to something bigger than themselves.”
Some of the research on resilience actually included a study of children whose parents had been either killed or injured on 9-11. Amazingly, of all the factors considered and measured, the one that was the most predictive of a child’s resilience was how much he or she knew about his or her grandparents and great grandparents.
As a grandparent, you are perfectly positioned to create the kinds of family narrative that can make your grandkids stronger and more resilient.
Start with a simple personal history. So many in the Church have already done this. You can do much of it right out of your own memory. And you’ve probably got some pictures and stories of your own parents, grandparents, and great grandparents that you can throw in.
Story, Additional Detail
For what it’s worth, here is a little more about our own experience trying to do exactly that:
It started when we came across a couple of old journals, one of Richard’s grandfathers who emigrated from Sweden and one of Linda’s great grandmothers who came from Denmark. The accounts told of incredible hardships, but also of the adventure and triumph of sea voyages and pioneer treks. We told some of the stories to our small children and were amazed at how interested they were.
So we went into the Church genealogical library and came across little stories or incidents from their everyday lives. (It was so much more cumbersome in those days to do ancestor research—hours searching through old journals and library books.) We wrote up the stories we found in children’s language, and put them in a binder labeled “ancestor stories.” For many years, those little accounts were our kids’ favorite bedtime stories. And they gave us a chance to say things like “That was your great grandmother! She had a pretty hard life didn’t she—but an exciting one. She was a smart, strong woman. And you have her blood in your veins!”
We began this whole family narrative business with our kids when they were small. But it became even more effective with out grandkids! (and so much easier in the era of Familysearch.com.) I (Linda) do a little half-day “grammie camp” with them each summer when we are together for our family reunion. I tell them ancestor stories and I let them illustrate the stories in our big book or write about the things they like about their ancestors in their own little journals. Kids love the notion that they came from somewhere; they like to begin to understand the rudiments of genetics and the fact that they inherit appearance, traits, and tendencies from those who went before them.
This really became vivid to me (Richard) one evening at a family reunion a few years ago. We had been telling “ancestor stories” to the grandkids and some of them seemed particularly impressed and touched by a story about a great grandmother who had endured a terribly hard immigration journey from Denmark and then a trek with handcarts and covered wagons across the planes and through hostile Indian country to where they settled in the American west. Her husband and some of her children died on the journey, but she made it and became a wonderful elementary school teacher who educated and helped hundreds of children.
Later that same evening I happened to be walking past the room where we had been telling the story and where the ancestor tree hung on the wall. The room was empty except for little eight year old Hazel who was standing in front of the tree, her finger tracing from her own picture on a high limb of the tree down through her parents limb and down through our trunk, and down into the roots of her grandparents. Hazel didn’t notice me peeking in and, thinking she was alone, spoke loudly to herself as her finger reached the picture of her great grandmother. “I’m one-eighth from YOU” she declared. There was pride in her voice—and a certain kind of strength and resilience.
One good place to tell kids the stories of their grandparents is in the places where the stories happened. It is fun in a very deep sort of way to arrange short day trips with one or two grandkids to a town where one of their ancestors lived and to actually walk where they walked and try to imagine what it was like then.
Another good place (and often more convenient) is the cemetery where ancestors are buried. A quiet day in a beautiful cemetery can be a marvelous place to let a grandchild locate an ancestor’s headstone, read the dates of his birth and death, and tell some of their stories. You can almost see the satisfaction and identity in their eyes as they begin to “get” who they are and where they came from.
Ancestors and Identity
The reason adolescents join gangs is that they need this larger identity. The reason they want to follow a certain style or behave in a particular way is that they have an inherent need to be part of something larger than themselves — to fit into some bigger whole, to have something to rely on, to fall back on, to belong to.
That “thing,” of course, should be family. Not just their nuclear or household family, but their extended family — their ancestors — the progenitors whose genetics and traits and propensities they share. Knowing their roots makes them more secure and more resilient.
And that shouldn’t surprise us. It is natural for a child who knows that her great-grandmother survived tough times to have a little more confidence in enduring some small crisis of her own. And a child who knows the stories of the successes of his great-great grandparents takes on a little extra confidence in himself.
One way to make these connections is to create an “Ancestor Book.”
For us, the ancestor book was a big, old leather-bound book of blank paper that we got while we were living in England. In it we write down the stories we know about various forbearers, in children’s-story language. We adopted the stories from journals and diaries and from the oral traditions we had heard as kids. We gave each story an exciting title like “Grandpa Dan and the Cat that Came Back,” and “How this Mountain-moving Family Stayed Together on The Pioneer Trail.” Our young children illustrated the stories with little drawings of stick figures and imagination.
These little bits of family history became our kids’ favorite bedtime stories.
And as mentioned, there has never been an easier time to create this kind of a family narrative. There are a number of genealogy websites that make it convenient to locate the data on ancestors, and with a little digging and contacting of older relatives, it is surprisingly easy to find stories about most of these noble folks to whom we owe so much.
But again, the best of all the search sites, and far and away the best repository of ancestor information is well known to those of us in the Church. On Familysearch.org, you can enter whatever small amount of information and dates you have about an ancestor and go to the most extensive genealogical research source on earth to connect with additional data. If you wish, this site will put your family tree into “fan” form and allow you to click through to all available information about preceding generations and also access any available photos, documents and stories about that person. (Beware, this site is addictive!)
Many who read this article will be much better at genealogical research than we are, but whether you are a beginner or a guru, our advice is to tie your branches to your roots in any way you can…. through stories, through photos, through big, visible family trees, but mostly just through letting your grandchildren see how much you love those who went before and how interesting and powerful their lives were.
Richard and Linda Eyre are the New York Times #1 bestselling authors of Teaching Your Children Values and a dozen other parenting books. They are now focusing on writing and speaking to grandparents (see Lifeinfullcruise.com and Lifeinfullonq.com). Their latest book is LIFE IN FULL: Maximizing Your Longevity and Your Legacy. Richard’s next book is Proactive GRANDfathering (2017) and Linda’s is The Deliberate Art of Grandmothering (2018)