Family Tree Projects: The Good and Bad

Family tree projects can be the worst for a lot of kids. I get why they exist, and I definitely see the value in having a basic understanding of how genealogy works. I wonder though, in our ever-evolving society, if there isn’t a better way to teach it. I feel like both the timing and the method could be improved upon.

A family tree is basically a pedigree chart. It shows familial relationships on a tree structure. It usually starts with the new generations at the base of the tree and works up generation by generation with the oldest family members at the top. The structure likely began with the Tree of Jesse, an illustration of the genealogy of Jesus Christ. It includes the ancestors of Christ based on information provided by the Book of Isaiah.

Genealogy was initially used as a tool to prove lineage to families who possessed wealth and power but in recent years has become a hobby for many. The Internet has been instrumental in making genealogical research available to the masses. There has been an explosion of interest on the topic, fueled by at-home DNA kits and online genealogy databases. Every day more people with seemingly traditional family histories are discovering a much more complicated story than they were previously aware.

Like almost everyone my age, I was assigned a family tree project in elementary school. It was the first time I ever felt like a wasn’t a real part of my family. I felt briefly as if I didn’t belong. The teacher certainly wasn’t trying to make me feel that way, and I managed to complete it without ever letting her know it was an issue for me. Still, I know now that I was not alone in my feelings. An increasing number of children are struggling during a time that’s supposed to be a simple school assignment.

I was adopted at birth. I never knew a family other than the people who raised me. Quite simply, they were my family. I never thought of them as my adoptive mom or dad. They were just Mom and Dad. They never hid the fact that I had been adopted. In fact, they revealed it in such a way that I don’t remember a time before that. It’s something I have always known and was always openly discussed. My sisters were adopted too, so we had that in common.

My parents put forth a huge amount of effort to make sure that my sisters and I never felt unwanted. They instilled in us the idea that God had a plan for us, and we were meant to be their children. In the front of all of our baby books Mom wrote, “Not flesh of my flesh, not bone of my bone, however miraculously my own. Don’t ever deny or forget for a minute, you didn’t grow under my heart; you grew in it.” I found out as an adult that it was actually slightly misquoted from a poem by¬†Fleur Conkling Heyliger. Still, those words shaped my whole idea of adoption. This was our destiny, and I was grateful for it.

I don’t remember exactly what grade I was in when the family tree project came up. It was the first time in my life that I felt different for being adopted. I felt like I stood out among my classmates even though they didn’t know. The project involved listing names and relationships of relatives and providing photos of them. This presented a problem for me given my situation.

My adoption was closed, so I had absolutely no information about my biological family. I knew immediately with the assignment that I would be using Mom and Dad’s families on the tree. It felt natural for me to use them as they were “my family.” I had never known another. Yet, somehow as I wrote their names down, I felt like a fraud.

I was fortunate in the sense that I actually look a lot like Mom. I never had people staring or judging us. In fact, people often mentioned in everyday conversations how much I resemble her. Claiming her family to be my own for the project didn’t look out of the ordinary at all. Neither one of my sisters looked anything like her. I can only imagine how awkward that felt for them to be turning in a family tree of a family they looked nothing like.

About 80,000 adoptions take place in this country every year, aside from stepparent adoptions. That’s a lot of kids feeling out of place or singled out at school. Every year the number of kids adopted from foster care increases. Many families choose international adoptions. Families come in many shapes and sizes. Most of the time, the children do not possess the information required for a family tree project.

My adoption was straightforward and done early. In a lot of situations, that is not the case. To some children, the family tree project can bring up painful memories or even feelings of shame. While adoption can be a wonderful thing, it often comes from an emotional place. Sometimes revisiting those emotions are not beneficial to anyone.

Let’s step back from adoption for a minute. What about the child who is temporarily in foster care? He doesn’t have contact to ask for his family tree information, but he feels awkward in his new home and doesn’t want to map out the family tree of the foster family. What about a family that has all the biological components in place to complete the project, but they have family they don’t want to display? What if someone in a family hurt another family member, and that family member isn’t ready to glue his or her face on a piece of poster board and discuss it in class? There are countless scenarios that could result in the assignment being awkward.

What if my own children were assigned said project? I was reunited with my birth family a few years ago. I took a DNA test through Ancestry, therefore, starting my own genealogical search. In order to begin, you have to start a family tree on the website. Considering I had no idea who either one of my biological parents were, I just put me on there. I took a minute, staring at the screen. I told my husband that there was no better representation than that image of what it felt like to not know who or where you came from.

Since I located my birth family, they have become a huge part of my life and are very close to my boys. If my sons had to do that project, it would need to include my entire adoptive family, my entire biological family, as well as half siblings and their families. For other kids, they might need to add in stepparents and their families. What used to seem like a basic, straightforward task has become anything but.

I’m not sure what the solution to this issue is. First, I feel that the subject is addressed too early. In recent years, there has been an explosion in the number of independent genealogy projects started by people doing DNA tests online. Many of the people doing them have no idea how family trees work or where branches intersect. That tells me these projects are being handled much too early in school. Little boys and girls aren’t retaining the information in a way that would prove useful to them. Maybe the project would be better suited for high school students.

I believe the task is currently handled early in school for a couple of reasons. First, it aims to help the child learn identity. Much along the lines of having the student draw a picture of her home and pets, it puts her life and surroundings into perspective for her. Who we are and where we come from are important concepts. Secondly, early in school it helps with separation anxiety for the children to see people and things they are familiar with in class. It helps them remember that they are only at school for a short time before returning home.

There are many other ways to convey these ideas in elementary school and save the family tree projects for a more appropriate age. Instead of a family tree, they could make a collage of the people who mean the most to them. Or they could map out the people they consider their support system. That could include friends, teachers, a social worker, etc.

The fact that we are opening the conversation on this topic means that we are trying to figure out how to do things better. We are being more considerate of others and are even preparing adoptive and foster parents for a time when their kids might need extra support. Adoptive parent Lita says, “I think family tree projects can be very valuable even for children who have come from adoption. It would really depend on the comfort level of the child as well. I would never be in a position where I would force my child to do one of those projects. I would definitely be opening to see how they feel about it because of the fact that I’m not an adoptee. As an adoptive parent, I have to recognize that they are going to feel things that I don’t, and they’re going to view the world in a different way than I. However, if they are comfortable doing the project, we can discuss how to integrate both their birth and adoptive family depending on the purpose of the assignment. It is easier for us with an open adoption. I don’t want to immediately assume that they will not want to do the project or make them feel like they should not want to do the project for some reason. It will be a lot of communication and following their lead on the subject. If they are excited about the project and want to participate, I will help them in whatever way I can and let them approach the project from whatever angle they feel comfortable.”

In recent years, many schools have decided to be more flexible with the assignment in an effort to be more inclusive. Others have decided to keep the project traditional, but they are sending notes home to get feedback from parents. It helps them to identify students who may have a difficult time with it.

Another idea would be to have alternative options for students. Maybe they could make their own family tree OR map out the family tree of a famous person that would be easy to trace their ancestry. There is more than one way to teach students the lesson at hand. Maybe more options would give children a way to be involved while not making them feel ostracized if they don’t have the biological family most people consider to be traditional.

Family has historically been defined as a unit of people living together, usually parents with their children. I believe we are taking steps to redefine that word every day. Family, to me, is a group of people, living together or not, that love and support each other. They have each other’s backs no matter the biological relationship. It should be based on care and respect, not on status. We don’t get to choose the family we are born into, but we do get to choose the people we keep around us.

We can choose the people who show up every day and make commitments to us. We can choose each other in a way that biology may not provide. We can choose family in a way that may not reflect easily on paper but in a way that will make us better for it. Maybe through our diverse families, we can teach genealogy as a skill as we do many other subjects, without the negative emotions it has for many now.