by Dr. Ken Canfield

Tom Starnes was the oldest grandchild in his extended family. One day when he was in his early twenties, his 85-year-old grandmother presented him with a collection of hand-written notes and explained that this was a brief genealogy of their family history, spanning over 200 years!

He thanked her and tried to act excited, but he had other things occupying his thoughts and time, and he didn’t fully appreciate the significance of what he’d been given. Nevertheless, he scanned through the names and dates until he found his name and birthday, last on the list, preceded by his parents and then his grandmother, his father’s mother. Those three generations were the only living members of their clan.

Tom was fascinated, but he didn’t give it too much thought until seven years later, when his grandmother died. That’s when he pulled out those sheets of paper with her handwriting, and he recalled what she had told him about the importance of preserving their family history. He now realized that she hoped that he would step into the role of family historian and heritage keeper.

Today, many more years later, Tom’s memories of his grandmother and the legacy she passed down to him are even more precious. Tom has grandchildren himself, and he’s very conscious of the fact that before he is gone, he’d like to pass on to his children and grandchildren the rich heritage that made him proud to be a Starnes.

Do you have a strong sense of your family history? Did you have a grandparent who left you with memories and keepsakes to give you a strong sense of who came before you and what their lives were about?

I believe passing on a strong heritage is critical to fulfilling our role as grandparents. And even if we didn’t know our grandparents or don’t know much about them, we can start with our own life history and give our children and grandchildren these benefits. If we have a family history that has a lot of painful memories, being intentional in this area can be part of redeeming the negative memories as we work to create a better heritage.

In my book, The HEART of Grandparenting, I have suggested some ways to pass on your family history to the next generations. Briefly, here are three of them:

Tell stories. Our life stories are found in the details of our memories: people, places, and events, and how they helped to shape who we are. To help you collect some of those significant memories, I highly recommend this free download of 25 questions to reflect on.

Once you have some thoughts and memories collected, it’s simply a matter of finding a good time and telling the stories. Many grandparents are natural at this, and the important thoughts here are to be purposeful about it and share from your heart. Let your children and grandchildren know that this history matters to you. You’re passing on important details about who you are. Here’s a way you can record your stories on video.

Consider pictures, artifacts & mementos you will want to pass on. You might have an old locket or pocket watch, pocket knife, dish set, quilt, painting, piece of clothing, car, coin collection, sewing machine … it could be just about anything. If there are things that are special to you and they symbolize something about you and your family, think about how and when you might pass those things on to certain children or grandchildren.

And of course photo albums are filled with memories and stories ready to tell. Make the effort to organize them so that the next generations can enjoy them even after you’re gone.

Maintain family traditions. They might be mostly around Christmas or other holidays, or birthdays, or times in the year. Maybe there’s a tradition for every family gathering, like cooking a certain dish, or it could be around a particular game or activity. Whatever your family traditions are, be sure to keep them going. They are important ways to reinforce the family identity and foster a strong sense of family history. (And if it seems the family needs some new traditions, those can work, too.)

How are you actively seeking to pass on your family history? Join the discussion on our Facebook page.

This was adapted from Dr. Ken Canfield’s book, The HEART of Grandparenting. Find out more and get your copy here.