Creative Parents.Com

  Arts Programs-What Works
  Lifelong Daddying
  Anderson the Music Man
  Grandma Storyteller
  Poet Mom
  Selecting Movies for Kids
  Becoming a New Dad
  Taback-on Illustrating
  Alice Hoffman Kids' Books
  Kingsley on "Holland"   Monday Night Art Class
  The Sisters Yankowitz
  Istar on Harry Potter


About Us
Contact Us

Getting the Whole Family Involved

Ira Wolfman, author of "Climbing Your Family Tree - Online and Off--Line Genealogy for Kids" (Workman Publishing, 2002) is a journalist and the principal owner of POE Consulting, a New York City communications and Information-Architecture firm that helps media companies and nonprofit organizations deliver their messages in powerful and engaging ways.

For more than ten years, he was Editor in Chief of Sesame Street Publications. Wolfman wrote his first book on genealogy in 1991. Between 1999 and 2002, he revised --and substantially rewrote--that book to reflect the many "exciting changes" he saw changing the hobby of genealogy.

Why do you feel genealogy is important for kids as well as adults?

Ira Wolfman
People think genealogy is about names and numbers. But that's not why anyone gets excited about it. If I tell you that my great great uncle was born in 1772, how meaningful is that? But if I discover what kind of work my ancestors did, where they lived and what mattered to them, suddenly I've learned something special about my family. That's the magic of genealogical research.

Genealogy is about insights into the human condition, the human spirit. It's about why we are who we are, both genetically and historically.

Creative Parents
How did you first become interested in genealogy?

Ira Wolfman
I've always loved history, but I never thought of my family as being a part of it. My last grandparent died when I was 21; I'd never asked any of them much about where they came from, what their lives were like. Everyone in my family came to the U.S. from Eastern Europe between 1902 and 1913. I hadn't thought about it much, but I never dreamed that I would be able to find any records or information about their earlier lives. My assumption was that World War II eliminated all evidence of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, that all the records had been destroyed.

But then, partly on a whim, in 1987 I took a beginners' workshop on genealogy. At this workshop, the teachers showed off their family documents, records from ships, postcards and photos. I was amazed and thrilled. (There were even the surveillance photos the U.S had taken over Poland.) It opened a world that I thought was lost.

What aspects of genealogy do kids find most interesting and accessible?

Ira Wolfman
Kids are often drawn to the origin of names and find them fascinating. We Americans rarely think about what our last names mean --but in fact, most of us have names that reveal something about our ancestors --what they looked like, who they were the sons (and sometimes the daughters) of, where they lived, or what kind of work they did.

For example, the last name Miller was given to someone who worked at a mill. Hernandez is the child of Hernando and Perez the child of Pedro. Schwartz is someone dark haired or dark skinned. Genealogy is about connecting the whole human race to one's self in a way that is filled with surprises.

Why did you decide to revise "Climbing Your Family Tree?"

Ira Wolfman
In 1999 I got a newsletter from Amazon and saw that my book on genealogy was the first on the list. At first my reaction was "This is great." Then I thought "This is terrible." The first edition was written before the internet had taken off. I wanted to take a fresh look at genealogy in light of all the new developments and resources.

While I was writing, my younger son started school. One day, a teacher there asked me, "Are you the person who wrote "Climbing Your Family Tree?" It turned out he had been using the book in his class for years, and he invited me to speak to his class about family history. I told them that I was revising it and invited their suggestions.

The teacher, Ted Kessler, called me a few months later and told me, "We need to talk about your book. A big problem has come up. I've been handing out traditional pedigree charts but the charts don't work for every family, and it's been causing problems. You need to address this in your new edition." For example, he told me about a single mother of an adopted child in his class who was very angry that her daughter had said to her, "I guess I only have half a family," when she couldn't fill in the father's side of the chart.

How did you solve this dilemma?

Ira Wolfman
I took a really long look at how the book talked about family, recognizing that things have changed in mainstream America over the past ten years. Families now have many, many different shapes. I revamped the concept of family trees to fit the concept of what a family is; for the design to make sense for different family structures. For example, I included the solution that the single mother came up with --a family flower--as one way to represent a family. It's in my book and it's lovely: On each pedal is a name of a relative, mother, grandmother, aunt. The birth mother is on a leaf of the flower.

Since families don't all fit the traditional models, I took advantage of some other lesser-known designs to accommodate different families. The fan and the pyramid are two of the new paradigms. These new designs provide a framework for charting blended families, adoptive families and single parent families. And they allow kids to draw a picture of their families --and feel proud, no matter what their family constellation looks like.

How else did the new edition reflect societal changes and your feedback from families?

Ira Wolfman
I also enlarged the chapter on families and wrote more about adoption, newly arrived immigrant families, gay and lesbian families and families where a parent is unknown or a parent has died. I worked hard to be inclusive and reflect my new sensitivity to the fact that people have different family structures where the traditional "pedigree chart" doesn't fit.

You say that stories are central to a genealogy. How can a child, or an adult for that matter, learn the family stories?

Ira Wolfman
The number one thing is to interview family members. The stories are lost when someone dies. Talk to older family members. Ask lots of questions. Where and when were you born? What were your parents names? Whom were you named after? Ask open-ended questions in ways that allow people to elaborate on their answers. Take out old photos and ask relatives what they remember about the people in them. Learn about the fabric of their lives. What were their struggles; whom did they love?

I interviewed my great aunt Blima at 92. She told me things about our family that no one remembered --and that were in no book. I treasure the information I got from her (she died a couple of years later) --and the relationship that our conversation created.

How do you encourage people to remember?

Ira Wolfman
People often don't realize what they know. Ask questions in different ways. Often information comes out in stories, not always in direct, factual questions.

What happens when the stories are painful?

Ira Wolfman
People often become emotional telling their family stories. They usually want to share, but if they don't --that's okay. Often we try to fill a silence after asking a question. Let the silence happen and the person will talk. Sometimes the relative needs time to compose and organize his thought, to recognize what she feels and what she want to say. I'd also suggest that you don't start the interview with difficult material; start with simpler questions.

What about if you get conflicting, or fabricated, information?

Ira Wolfman
There's no truth without proof. There is a difference between family stories and family truths. Be aware, that they are not always the same. When you get conflicting information, look at what's plausible, the dates for instance.

What makes genealogy such a great pursuit for kids?

Ira Wolfman
Genealogy gives you a picture of yourself. All kids are interested in where they come from, how they came to be who they are. Kids find genealogy a compelling puzzle. It also can connect them with living relatives--when you start to do your research, you find new family members and renew acquaintance with others. It helps create richer bonds between our far-flung families.

Here are 5 great things about kids learning genealogy:

1) Children discover that their parents and grandparents had childhoods, played games, went to school, just as they do.

2) Genealogy gives children an emotional connection with the past.

3) Genealogy is a phenomenal way to learn skills such as research, writing, and reading. It gives children a whole new way to learn history --and increases their interest in the subject.

4) Genealogy becomes a personal history, and makes abstract ideas about countries, transportation, occupations more concrete and thrilling.

5) Genealogy reunites people in families as they share information and tell stories.

"Climbing Your Family Tree," a 208-page paperback from Workman Publishing is available at as well as local bookstores.


contact us.
Copyright© 2003, Dr. Istar Schwager
Back to Top


Articles  Interviews  Reviews  Activities  Resources  Surveys  About Us  Contact Us
Copyright © 1999 Dr. Istar Schwager. Site design by ArtMar, Inc.