What’s in a Name?

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people in the our tree

The people in the our tree

I have been trying to think of how best to get my children excited about genealogy for a while now. I long assumed they were much too young, and I would worry about it when they were older. Teenagers, maybe? I have since realized they are more than ready now.

I first realized it two years ago, when my three year old brought home a family tree he had made in preschool. It started with him and included me, my husband, his brother and “the baby.” At the time, I was pregnant but hadn’t announced it outside the family. The family tree project forced an announcement, since the preschool teacher was also my next-door neighbor.

This week I decided to make another family tree with my boys. To make it more interesting, we would mostly focus on my sons’ namesakes. My older son, now seven, is named after his father and grandfather. My five year old is named for two of his great-grandfathers.

My goal is to help my boys understand why their names are special. I want them to know something about the men they are named after and take a little pride in their names. My older son doesn’t like to be called by his given name. He even gets angry, when we remind him that his real name is Nathan, not Trey. This is a bit of a sore spot for him and his grandfather. Maybe making our tree will help that situation too.

How We Picked My Sons’ Names

My husband is Nathan II, named after his father. When our first son was born, my husband was keen to continue the tradition with Nathan III. I was less excited. This was partly because I had heard him complain often of being called “Little Nate,” even when he was several inches taller than “Big Nate.” Our compromise was to name him Nathan III, but call him Trey, a traditional nickname for the third child in a generation, or the third generation of the same name. But it’s not as common as I would like, so I am constantly explaining it to people.

The first time I met my husband’s grandfather, he was already 80 years old. I was struck by his kindness and mental sharpness. Smith was his middle name, but that is what he went by all his life. When we found out we were expecting a second son, I knew I wanted to name him Smith. My husband was less sure. Smith is an unusual first name. It wasn’t until we were checking out of the hospital that he finally consented. His middle name, Robert, came from my grandfather, a man whose generosity, love, and devotion to his family has been an inspiration to me all my life.

Building the tree

Building the tree

The Prep

First, I needed to gather some supplies. I printed pictures of the key figures in our tree and obituaries for the two great-grandfathers. I had the father and grandfather fill out a short survey about themselves. Using those as a guide, I also printed a few smaller pictures to represent these men and their accomplishments. Last, I printed out what their first and middle names mean:

Trey – 3 or 3rd
Nathan – gift from God, He gave
Edward – wealthy guardian

Smith – blacksmith, metal worker
Robert – bright frame

How It Went Down

Before our activity begins, I picture my sons’ bright little faces, happy and completely absorbed in our activity. They will love it! They will ask lots of questions. They will be eager to help. They won’t fight. They will be so excited about their family history that they will share what they learned with everyone they meet for weeks.

In reality, they bounced all over the place. My younger son cried over who got to stick what to the poster. My oldest, as always, pouted about his given name and wanted to be “just Trey and no Nathan.”

Overall, I think it was a success.

Here is what I think I did wrong.

I had way too much information. At five and seven years old, reading obituaries and questionnaires is “too much boring.” We didn’t finish them. By the time I got to the “What does your name mean?” part, they had tuned me out.

A better approach for this age would be to keep it simple. Shorter activities spread out over several days or weeks might work better, too.

Here is what went right.

Finished poster

Finished poster

I laid down the boxes and lines on the poster ahead of time. Then I gave them the pictures and let them figure out where they went to make the tree. It was like a puzzle, and they loved that.

Next, we wrote names by everyone’s picture. I was hoping this would let them see the pattern in their names on their own, and it worked. My second son shouted, “Robert, that is like one of my names!” My first son got to see that he has many relatives that go by something other than their given name, like Grandma Needy (Jeannine) and Grandpa Bud (Robert), just to name two.

The other thing they loved was matching the smaller pictures to the person. I think they learned the most from this part of the activity.”Which of these men builds airplanes?” They point to their Poppy. “Which man built a cabin in the mountains?” And so on. We also learned that camping runs in our family. It was a favorite activity for all four men, just as it is for my boys.


The poster is hanging in their bedroom now. It’s only been a few days, but they have asked several times when we are going to finish the other people on the poster.

Maybe we can do that next week, but we will need a bigger poster.

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2 Responses to “What’s in a Name?”

  1. Jackie Roberts says:

    My granddaughter finally got interested in the Family tree after we found Judith de Lens, niece of William the Conqueror, in my tree. This coincided with her studying William at school so she told her History teacher who gave her a house point for sharing the information. I think Julie is very clever to foster the children’s interest before the older members of the family are no longer there to question. I know there are many questions I would like to ask my grandparents and great grandparents who were alive when I was younger. Genealogy is infectious, as I know only too well.

  2. Diane says:

    Julie, thank you for the great ideas. I too have been wondering how to engage my grandteeners (teenage grandchildren) in their family history. The names approach is sure to interest them.

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