The Ancestor Effect and Other Benefits of Genealogy

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

  1. Pingo says:

    Only two out of my four grandparents show up Not ptisoive why. Fix my bug! or not.I was also looking for a community geneology site to track family trees, and hoped for an implementation just like the one you’ve got here. So thanks for that.

  2. April Tate says:

    My parents spoke rarely about our ancestry. There were some real stinkers in the present generations and they must have felt that stretched back. I decided I wanted to know my greats and great greats. What I have found is that the family was remarkable for their achievements and there were some famous people. I concentrated on my father’s side: The Gridley Family. Amongst these were Thomas Gridley who was a co-founder of Hartford CT and Colonel Richard Gridley an engineer in charge of fortification at the Battle of Bunker Hill. He went on to be the first Chief Engineer of the Corp of Engineers. Also there was Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe who were a part of the underground railroad and his wife Julia(?} Ward Howe who wrote the words to the Battle Hymn of the Republic. And of course for you who are history persons there was
    “Fire when Ready, Gridley” the order given at the battle of Manila Bay. A whole class of ships was named for Captain Steven Gridley. They were indeed the stuff this country was made of and I am proud to have known them. They became real to me through Genealogy. April Gridley Tate

  3. I am interested in what you have to say, I am trying to trace the family of my father
    Robert castles borne in Ireland around 1890.can you help

  4. I am interested in what you have to say, I have spent years trying to trace my
    Fathers family borne in Ireland around 1890 can you help

  5. Ruth says:

    I found how important family history is since starting my research Feb. 2012 when my sister and I were chatting at her dining room table. We went on her computer and found a 3-2nd cousins we hadn’t seen since we were quite young, and another 2nd cousin we didn’t know about. We have had several get-togethers sharing family pictures and stories. Since I am retired I have taken on the task to document our family. I have also written many vignettes about our lives when we were young. They are on my computer and everything is backed up. I also have written notes and received replies from people who are 3rd or 4th cousins that are interested in knowing more about our family. . .some of them we even get to meet. This is a very fulfilling task and definitely keeps me very busy.

  6. Jean Benitz says:

    This was lovely and gave me an idea to be able to leave family stories from both my husband and myself. My Mother
    didn’t like me even when I was terribly young. An aunt took over clothing me and paying for lessons etc. because she
    wouldn’t and other sibliing s were brought up with all sorts of ugly story that are not true. To be able to leave a history
    that is in my voice and tell them their family stories that are positive about me and also amusing is a wonderful idea.

    Thank you.

  7. I want to thank you for updating and uploading the genealogy information on the Familylink website. I have been researching Genealogy for years looking for the date of birth and death for my older sister. Patricia Margaret was about 10 weeks old when she died from a hole in the heart. Being the youngest of 12 no one seemed to remember when she was born and the day she died. Thanks to your website I now have this information for my family tree.

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