Everything that is past is either a learning experience to grow on, a beautiful memory to reflect on or a motivating factor to act upon.
– Denis Waitley
It’s not unusual for our family’s thoughts and conversations to turn to those who are missing at our Thanksgiving table. A small family to begin with, it has become smaller through the years with the loss of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. And with the pandemic, we’ve intentionally shared an intimate meal with fewer numbers. So we appreciate all the more the family that we have and enjoy our being together. Thinking about your own mortality and the death of loved ones can add to your sense of gratitude finds leading gratitude researcher, Robert Emmons. We acknowledge that time is precious. We focus on the moment at hand and the experience of spending time with the people we love. This led me to think about our ancestors. How much do we really know about them and their stories? Is it important for me as a parent to explore our family histories with my son to contribute to his sense of identity?
In fact, my research into these questions proved that it is indeed important to all family members including our children to explore our past for multiple reasons. Robert Emmons explains that understanding the trials and difficulties of generations that went before us can help us appreciate our current circumstances. Further, researchers in Berlin and Munich have shown that children who spend a short time thinking or learning about ancestors actually performed better on intelligence tests. They dubbed this the “ancestor effect,” the idea being that thinking and learning about the multitude of adversities our genetic lines had to overcome makes us feel empowered, more competent and in control. It gave students a sense of grit, or persistence to stick with problems. If their ancestors could deal with hunger, poverty, war, discrimination, injustice and more, certainly they could manage their current reality. We also feel a sense of belonging and connection to a line of people who stayed strong despite their struggles.
Many schools recognize the benefits of students learning about their families’ stories and understanding history from multiple cultural perspectives. Some engage programs such as, Facing History and Ourselves and integrate learning about historical events with understanding who students are today and how the past can inform their present and future. This particular program has demonstrated outcomes in improving students’ critical thinking skills, their sense of ability to contribute to the world, their social awareness, and their connectedness to their school community.
There are ways to combine this background knowledge with the practical aspects of hosting or attending a Thanksgiving celebration. Involve your family members in the following project and let them lead questions with grandparents and other relatives to uncover stories from the past. You need do very little to prompt this engagement but it could lead to rich sharing amongst young and old over your turkey dinner.
Set up materials for kids to create. Put out colored construction paper, pencils, markers or crayons and scissors. Have kids trace their shoe on the paper and cut it out. Be sure to have enough supplies available that if grandparents or others want to add information to the cut-out feet, they have their own patterns to write on. Have some pictures and maps available to look at former generations and the places from which they came.
Brainstorm what is known and what questions you have about family members that lived before you. For example, I know my son’s great, great grandmother was Navajo but I am unsure of her original name (it was changed as an adult) or where she came from. So on one foot pattern, he’ll write “Great, great grandma – Navajo.” He can write the questions, “What was her name? Where did she come from? What do we know or can we learn about the Navajo Nation?”
Create an ancestral trail. Designate the family lines with signs (see picture right). Kids can line up the ancestral path on the floor perhaps leading to the doors of the house. They can engage in conversations with each adult at your Thanksgiving gathering to see who might be able to contribute to the stories that are forming.
Share together. Perhaps after the feast is over and your tummies are properly full, follow the trails made together. Also use the maps to get a sense of where in world your ancestors lived. Read through, comment and see if there are any additions to the information shared. Or are there questions unanswered that you want to explore?
I am looking forward to this exploration into our family history this Thanksgiving. Cultivate gratitude for the people who have gone before you by exploring their stories and honoring the past. Surely, it will deepen your appreciation of the present.
For child-friendly photos and brief descriptions of the clothing worn, food eaten and typical daily life of those who were present at the first Thanksgiving, check out Scholastic’s “The First Thanksgiving.” Or watch a video to experience the indigenous people, the Wapanoag Nation.
If you celebrate Thanksgiving this year, may it be healthy, safe and connecting!
Emmons, Robert. Gratitude Works! A 21-Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Fischer, P., Sauer, A., Vogrincic, C. & Weisweiler, S. (2010). The Ancestor Effect: Thinking about our Genetic Origin Enhances Intellectual Performance. European Journal of Social Psychology. DOI: 10. 1002/ejsp.778.