How Well Do Your Grandchildren Know You?

A recent survey found that many adults don't know much about their grandparents. Will your grandchildren be different?

By Veronica Majerol

What should your grandchildren know about you?

Would you like them to know you were a volunteer firefighter, or that you once sang in a rock band? Do you want them to know that your father fought in World War II, or that your mother was a dance teacher? There's only one way for them to find out, and that's if you tell them.

What You Don't Know

You may know a lot about your own grandparents. But according to a 2007 survey, conducted by the genealogy website Ancestry.com, a surprising number of U.S. adults lacked fundamental knowledge of their personal histories — one in three could not even name any of their great-grandparents. The site also found that only 43 percent of the adults surveyed knew both their grandmothers’ maiden names. Further, 22 percent did not know what their grandfathers did for a living, and 28 percent did not know if any of their ancestors had served in the military.

“A lot of kids don’t connect to their history because they’re not talking about it at the table,” says Lou Szucs, a genealogist with Ancestry.com. The shift, she says, began in the 1950s, when many more families became separated "geographically and emotionally.”

Physical proximity doesn’t always help to bridge the knowledge gap. Helen Altman, 69, of Silver Spring, Md., is a retired librarian for the Library of Congress. While growing up in Michigan, she lived in the same town as both sets of her grandparents, but there was much she didn’t know about them.

Three of Altman's grandparents were immigrants, but "my parents were of a generation where they didn’t want to emphasize it," she says. "I would ask my parents certain things, even what church my grandparents belonged to when they lived in Germany and Czechoslovakia." But her parents didn’t discuss many details. "It was all vague," she says.

Altman has made sure that her six grandchildren — ages 10 to 13 — know more about their grandparents. The kids regularly hear all about Altman and her husband’s "bohemian" days in graduate school. "They find almost everything hard to believe — especially that we smoked," she says. "They love to hear those stories."

Committed to Storytelling

Other grandparents make a conscious effort to pass on their families' stories. Barry Schwartzberg, 62, of New York City, a retired investigator for New York State's Department of Labor, became a grandfather in January. He says he knew a lot about his grandparents when he was growing up — that his paternal grandfather drove a taxi and smoked cigars, that his mother’s father was a generous man who sold shower curtains, and that his maternal grandmother enjoyed a now-defunct brand of sardines. Still, what their lives were like before he was born remains a mystery to him.

Schwartzberg, though, plans on telling his grandson everything there is to know about his upbringing, especially his colorful teenage years, which he says were spent largely in a "subterranean" Brooklyn pool hall, which he calls "The Pit." He has written eight stories and a screenplay about those days, and plans to self-publish the collection as a keepsake for his grandson. "Someday he’ll have them all," he says. "I want him to know how I grew up."

Passing It On

Creating a keepsake like Schwartzberg's book is one of many ways a grandparent can pass on family stories to the next generation, says Susan Bosak. She is the author of several books about intergenerational relationships, including How to Build the Grandma Connection (Communication Project).

"Weaving stories into everyday activities" is another way, Bosak says, "and there’s an appropriate story for every age." For example, you might tell a 6-year-old grandchild about your first bike, and a teenage grandchild about your first love. Talking about the first time you earned money, or a nickname you had as a kid could lead to a conversation about what your grandchildren are experiencing themselves, without coming across as preaching.

A fun approach is to throw a "photo party" Bosak says. You could invite your complete extended family: aunts, cousins, uncles, people of every age. Ask everyone to bring favorite old family photos, and you will assemble an amazing collection of pictures that grandchildren may be seeing for the first time. The photos will inspire relatives to share stories that tell something about the subjects. As a game the kids will enjoy, everyone can try to recreate poses from old snapshots.

"Photographs carry a lot of emotion and meaning for adults, and even young children respond to photographs," Bosak says. But any activity that helps create a bond across generations has value, she says, because it gives you "a connection to a larger thing: the flow of life."


To find out more about tracking your family's genalogy, click here. Elsewhere on Grandparents.com, learn about bonding with grandchildren from a distance, discover how making home movies can bring you and your grandchildren closer together, and read our feature on the best ice-breakers to get grandchildren talking.

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