The Value of Family History

You can listen to this blog.

I’ve been thinking about family and extended family a lot lately. My family is facing an imminent loss, which makes me think about my father, who passed away many years ago. Along those lines, I decided to write a little bit about the value of family history.

Living History

Sometimes it seems like family members know very little about each other. Life gets busy and there are always so many other things to do. And when we see people regularly, we feel like we “know” them. But when a family member passes away, we might realize that we didn’t know them as well as we thought. Sadly, the opportunity to know them better is gone.

I have frequently heard people wish that they could turn back time and ask their deceased relative some crucial question. Perhaps they need a childhood memory clarified. Maybe they wish to know the explanation of a curious photograph. They might need to know if someone else in the extended family had a particular medical condition. Or maybe they’ve chanced upon some old correspondence that reveals more about their relative than they ever imagined. Or maybe they have come to recognize the value of family history to a greater degree now that it’s out of reach.

Unless we ask, we will know very little about the hopes, dreams, struggles, disappointments, and histories of our families. To miss out on the wisdom gained from those experiences is to miss out on the richest aspect of a relationship: knowing someone deeply.

Learning from My Dad
Author Don M. Winn with his father as a child in Colorado, outside in the garden, dressed in their nice suits.

In my own family, I treasure the memories I have of spending time with my dad. He’s been gone now for over 38 years. How I loved our conversations and projects together!

Even when I was as young as 3 or 4 years of age, he always let me tag along with him. We went to the lumberyard when he needed supplies for a home project. He let me help when he worked in the yard or garden—although I always slowed down his work.

I would frequently go with him on sales calls for his job. At home, while my dad worked diligently to support us, I sat on the floor under his desk, doing my own “paperwork” with junk mail.

A makeshift office on an enclosed porch with a desk and cabinets and a typewriter and shelves full of sales stock. The value of family history can be appreciated when we learn about our family's past.
My dad’s makeshift office and sales supplies where I would be underfoot with my pretend desk and valuable junk mail. I especially liked the junk mail with stickers—like from a record company.

But I also have regrets. My dad died when I was only twenty-one, so I never got to know him as an adult. I never knew about the man he had been when he wasn’t being my dad.

The Value of Conversation

On my wife’s side of the family, she has had daily conversations with her aging mother for years. But it’s only been within the last three years that her mom has really opened up to her. She began sharing aspects of her childhood and young adulthood that literally no one else alive knew about her.

We’re talking big life events here. For example, she was raised by her grandmother until she was eight years old. But she never knew that her grandmother was not her mother until her grandmother died. Then she discovered that her real mother was a woman who had visited her a few times. This woman was someone she thought of as “the pretty lady who always smelled nice.” My wife also learned that her mother had been engaged to be married before she married my wife’s father.

Shared experience brings families together. They can be shared either by experiencing them as a group or through the telling of stories. Family history, if you will.

Sometimes this process of coming to value family history presents difficulties. The 2003 movie Big Fish portrays a man’s relationship with his adult son. The son desperately wants to know his father. But the father, Ed, is known for telling truly outrageous tall tales. This makes his son Will afraid he will never be able to know who his father really is. After one particularly frustrating encounter, the script reads as follows:

“Ed Bloom-Senior: What do you want? Who do you want me to be?

Will Bloom: Just yourself. Good, bad, everything. Just show me who you are for once.”

A scene from the movie Big Fish where father and son sit at at table in what might be tense conversation. This movie reveals the value of family history because it's not always easy to obtain those histories.
Scene from Big Fish
Learning to Confront Our Discomforts

Whether the people in your life under or overshare, creating meaningful connections with our loved ones requires work. First, we need to have the desire to get to know them. Then we need to be willing to spend plenty of time in patient conversation. Doing so provides a wonderful kind of inheritance—the solidity and stability of knowing the people who came before you. Knowing and appreciating your heritage can be an anchor in the rough seas of an unstable world. It reminds us that the family who came before us dealt with and survived hard things and that we can too.

Shawn Coyle, author of The Story Grid, says, “A well-told story is a gift to the reader/listener/viewer because it teaches them how to confront their own discomforts.” Mr. Coyle is writing about the art of crafting books people will want to read. But the same principle applies to the stories we share with one another as families. Learning to confront our own discomforts is a process best aided by seeing (or hearing stories of) our loved ones coping with the same.

History Class and Personal Histories

Many kids don’t particularly enjoy history class. After all, what could possibly be interesting about a bunch of dead people, right? How could reading about monarchs and political coups possibly interest a child?

But history is so much more than learning about which political faction overthrew another. According to the philosophy of the French Annales school, history must include insight into the daily lives of people from all backgrounds to be truly and personally meaningful to the masses. This alone might make the value of family history more important to the parents of school age children.

Helping a child understand their own family’s personal history can often give them a very different perspective on history class.

Other Lessons Learned from Family Histories

Through family stories and histories, children learn that the adults in their life aren’t just there to take care of them. They are fully-fledged people who have interests, feelings, dreams, and struggles they have overcome. How many remarkable accomplishments of our ancestors have already been lost due to inattention? It is our job and our privilege as parents and grandparents to keep these stories alive for future generations. So give the gift of as much family history and stories as you can to your children while you can.

“A man tells his stories so many times that he becomes the stories. They live on after him, and in that way he becomes immortal.” Big Fish, 2003.

Cover of the Superhero picture book by Don M. Winn along with Family review Center awards for Best of the year, gold medal, and Five Star award. Don M. Winn wrote this book to honor his late father and to share the value of family history.

I started writing this article as a tribute to dad. My dad always made me feel safe and loved. So I wrote my picture book Superhero for him. As a kid, I dreamed of being a hero—even a superhero—like I saw on TV and in movies. But my dad taught me that being a hero means showing up for the people you love. Being present, being available, and being willing to listen and offer comfort. Every time I had a bad dream or was in over my head, I could call on my dad. He was always there for me.

Cardboard Box Adventures picture books are great for shared reading and can help parents establish a strong preliteracy foundation for their children. Check out the CBA Catalog for a full list of award-winning picture books, chapter books, and resources for parents and educators. Visit my Amazon author page for more information.