The Ancestor Effect and Other Benefits of Genealogy

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I have five grandchildren now; the fifth just arrived. They’re a little cuter than yours, and adorable, amazing, and brilliant. I find myself drawn to write stories for them – my stories, my parents’ stories, and stories I recall hearing about generations I never even met. These stories must be preserved, but I’ve never before taken the time to do it.

I’m learning where I came from, and I want my grandchildren to understand where they came from, too. In the process I’m coming to understand something about my grandchildren that I didn’t know when my own children were young. They need to be taught genealogy when they are young, so that it becomes a natural part of their daily experience.

Clare and three more generations

Clockwise from top: My mother, myself, twin granddaughters, and my daughter, their mother.

Some people explore their family history for religious or medical reasons, or simply because they want to understand who they are. But recent research suggests another good reason for doing it – and for starting young. Unfortunately, it’s also a good reason for me to feel a little more guilty for not getting as much done as soon as I might have.

For a decade I’ve practiced as a mental health therapist. This means I need to keep up on the research in my field, which is how I recently discovered an article in the European Journal of Social Psychology about “the ancestor effect.”

The authors, Peter Fischer et al., suggest that thinking about our genetic origin actually enhances intellectual performance. What a concept! What a purpose for genealogy! Just as reading to your children and grandchildren and doing daily math help increase intellectual abilities, so can learning about Grandma and Grandpa and those who came before them.

This led me to more academic research into the effects of genealogy. I discovered that there is medical and psychological evidence that intergenerational relationships reduce stress and anxiety. Studies show that knowing grandparents or knowing about previous generations creates a “narrative of knowing,” and that narrative deepens the relationship between the narrator and the reader or listener. Research in Asia suggests that developing intergenerational relationships affects both cultural identity and gender identification.

So how will I, as a grandparent, tell my stories to my grandchildren? Each child may be different, and each age may be different. I’ll need to use whatever media reach them. Some will want to read my stories. Some will want to hear them. Others may respond best to some sort of visual experience. Multimedia, here I come . . .

Language itself can be a barrier between generations. Recent research on intergenerational relationships between relatives in Finland and Russia shows that a language barrier can contribute to an emotional barrier, not just make family history research frustrating and expensive. This is one of the reasons why I love online translation tools.

Even if I am not physically present, my identity, stories, and history can have a lasting, positive effect on my posterity. To me this is the ultimate gift I can give to my grandchildren:  a better sense of who they are, because of who I am.

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3 Responses to “The Ancestor Effect and Other Benefits of Genealogy”

  1. Joy Chichester says:

    My son and his family decline to socialize with me and I’m not often welcomed into their home. They said I talk too much about myself. This was after I gave printouts of their pedigree charts and talked about the ancestors, to my son’s three daughters. My daughter and her remaining four children moved to the east coast from Colorado, and I can’t afford to go see them. Her first three children were taken away by Social Services and given to other families and I haven’t seen them since 2000. I am researching our ancestors, have over 2000 antecedents documented in my Family Tree Maker, and sit here alone in my apartment with no one to talk to. What a heartache!

  2. I just finished transcribing, with a transcribing machine operated by my foot, 26-90 minute tapes of my mother-in-laws.
    It took me nearly 6 years and another year to edit it. But I finally got it published for the family reunion in July 2013. I wanted to keep her voice for posterity but knew that I couldn’t do all 26 tapes. She had one tape that she read some poetry from her childhood, and some that she had written. I bought one of those machines that will record from records, or tapes on to CD’s. I was able to make a wonderful copy for my children and my nieces and nephews. I hope that they will treasure it as much as we do!

  3. Fiona says:

    Awesome read…thank you for sharing…now I have a name to put to it “Ancestor Effect”

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