Family Tree Projects: The Good and Bad

Are they good? Or not so good?

Lita Jordan April 18, 2019
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I remember quite vividly my parents’ living room table being covered in construction paper, glue, and pictures as far as the eye could see. My teacher had finally assigned the infamous “Family Tree” project. I was stoked. My older sister had done this project two years prior, and I was envious. We had a large, close family on both sides. I had a wealth of information, and pictures to add. This tree would be EPIC. Each picture would tell a story, and each member would grow the tree to more immense proportions. For me, the “Family Tree” project was exciting and fun. For many other children, the “Family Tree” project can invoke fear, depression, and embarrassment.

For a child who lives in a nontraditional home, these family tree projects can be quite traumatic. In reality, very few homes are what is considered “traditional” anymore. You have homes that are blended with either a mom and a dad who may not be biological. You have homes where children are adopted. You have homes where children are living with their grandparents or other relatives. You also have homes where children are only there temporarily such as foster homes. With this, these family tree projects can get quite complicated.

This is leading some to examine if our society is now in a forced position to decide whether or not family tree projects are something that should continue or something that teachers should forgo as time goes on, and families become more nontraditional. Do we remodel these products to include everyone and is there even a way to do that? How do we make these projects so they are less traumatic? Do we just quit doing these projects altogether in order to cater to the children who do you not have the knowledge or access to the knowledge to complete a family tree they are proud of or feel is genuine?

There are some who believe that the project should continue and just be molded to fit the child. There are others who believe that these projects should go away altogether. At the end of the day, it really depends on the child and the reasoning for which this family tree project becomes difficult. We also must keep in mind that there also may be children who are living with their traditional family who know very little about anyone other than their own parents. In general, the family tree project is a lot more difficult and a lot less exciting for many than was my own experience living in a very “traditional” family.

Blended Families

The number has changed and often ebbs and flows, but there are about 50% of marriages that end in divorce. When marriages fall apart, there are a whole lot of children who are affected. This also includes situations where the parents of children are not in a relationship with each other. For these children, a family tree project can bring up a lot of bad memories, hesitancy, resentment, and even fear. Imagine being in the position of a child whose parents are divorced and being at one home to create this project. Will they feel pressure to create it on one family solely? Will that child feel pressure to include or not include a step-sibling or half-sibling? Will that child even know who to include and have to have that awkward conversation with one parent or the other that one might lead to jealousy and resentment? The family tree project can be incredibly hurtful to a child who is in a blended family. While the hope would be that parents would be a mature enough to guide their child on how to create this family tree and not be so prideful as to shame their child for including other members of their extended and blended family, we have to be honest with ourselves. That’s simply just not always the case. In this case, teachers are putting children in a position to have to deal with adult problems. At the end of the day, it’s just really not fair to the child and could even create turmoil within their family.

Is the family tree project and the lesson that it brings worth the heartache that it might cause for a child in a blended family? Is there a way that we can do this project so that a child does not feel hurt or that tension? Some have suggested that when it comes to a blended family, the child should just stick with the biological family as to not hurt either side. However, this does not seem to be a real solution. Children may have a parent who has passed away or who is not involved. They may have a step-sibling or a half-sibling who does not fit on the tree in a completely biological way. A child may also have a stepfather or mother who means the world to them that they would like to include. Even if we make an attempt to help the child by excluding anyone who is not biological in a blended family, there are still multiple issues with this, and not every child is going to fit that mold. Additionally, if we’re creating this family tree based solely on biological family members, what if that child was adopted by their stepparent? How would the family tree work then? When it comes down to it, there is really no way to remodel this project for blended families so that there is no chance of a child getting hurt or feeling awkward about the situation.

Adoptees

There was an episode of the Canadian TV show Heartland on recently. The episode featured a child named Georgie who started out of the foster child on the show who was adopted by parents, Peter and Lou. While Georgie adored her new mom and dad and also her sibling, grandparents, and every relative featured on the show, she very much still had a connection to her birth parents and her biological brother. Her birth parents had died in a car accident and Georgie was placed into care. When the idea of the family tree project came up, there was a lot of hesitance and awkwardness. However, Georgie’s adoptive parents let her take the lead when it came to the family tree project. Georgie chose to make one large tree with a branch featuring her biological parents and then also a branch featuring her adoptive parents. It was a really beautiful story and illustrated a different way to look at the family tree project. Georgie was able to take all of her family members and find a way to make the family tree project tell her own personal adoption story.

While this approach is beautiful and sappy and neatly put together, it’s simply not the reality for all adoptees. It is definitely a way to look at it and a way to approach the project. This may an option if you have a child who was part of an open adoption. For this child, a family tree project might be relatively simple. They have the knowledge to draw from to find out information about both of their birth family and their adoptive family. The hope is that in an open adoption, the relationship is strong enough between each family for them to cooperate in order to help their child to make a family tree that tells their adoptive story. However, this should not be an excuse for parents not to listen to their child if their child does not feel comfortable doing the tree that way. It should be left in the hands of and be the choice of the adoptee on how they want to feature each member and if they want to feature each member of the family. This is where the family tree project becomes more complicated.

In the event of a closed adoption, the child might not even have the knowledge to know about his or her birth family. If the family tree project was assigned based on the idea of finding out genetics, just doing an adoptive family tree not only will not work in this situation, but it would also exclude the child of a closed adoption altogether. It may also bring up feelings of the child feeling like he is not good enough or somehow abnormal.

When speaking with an adoptee, she noted that though she had information on both her first family and adoptive family, she still felt different than everyone. It’s still made her feel crummy. While this adoptee noted that she would still do the project given the choice, she very vividly remembers that heartache of feeling like her project was different and weird compared to everyone else’s project. This should matter to the teacher, the parents, and the education system in general. The feelings that these projects invoke in children should matter and may be cause for a change.

Foster Children

In the name of full disclosure, when I first suggested writing this article, I was definitely on the side of keeping this project around. It made sense to me for the project just to change based on the needs of the child. I certainly saw the need for children to be able to do the project how they chose, but I did not really see the harm in asking a child to do this project under any circumstance. However, knowing that I felt pretty strongly about my opinion, I reached out to some friends of mine who are both adoptive parents and who have been adopted. I also reached out to some who have been foster parents or are familiar with the foster care system. I’m ashamed to admit that I completely disregarded or rather did not consider children in the foster system encountering this situation. For a foster child, I can’t imagine the pain that this project might bring up. These children are in, most likely, the hardest time in their life that they will face. They may feel like they don’t belong anywhere or to anyone.

To have a child who is in foster care do this project could be the epitome of traumatic. To make a child who may not have access to information, who may not be able to even see their family in this time, is horrifying. I cannot imagine the type of trauma that this would invoke, especially if this is a project where the child has to stand in front of the class to present their family tree. It is also not realistic to just exclude the child because then that makes a child feel different and possibly shamed that they were unable to do the project. Allowing the child to be exempt may make them feel even worse.

Even when we as humans are out of place that we feel we are sure and our beliefs or opinions, it is vital in these situations to hear from those who have been through this. Those who have been through a situation that we simply have an opinion about but have not experienced. By reaching out to others who have been through this situation, I was able to see the error in my thinking and realize that the family tree project impacts way more people than I originally had in my mind. While I was pretty set in my opinion that the family tree project was harmless, it is clear that I was completely wrong. My mind has changed on a million different subjects over the years and will continue to change as I grow as a person. I have always taught my children that they need to not learn what to think but rather how to think because they should never be afraid to be proven wrong for the sake of personal growth. The family tree project was one of these times for me personally. While I think that genetics and even the idea of a family tree should still be discussed, this project is simply outdated and does not represent where our culture is and this day and age. It simply does not reflect most of the families that would encounter this project. The most important point here is that the family tree project is not worth the harm it could do to children and the trauma it could invoke.

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Lita Jordan

Lita Jordan is a master of all things "home." A work-from-home, stay-at-home, homeschooling mother of five. She has a BA in Youth Ministry from Spring Arbor University. She is married to the "other Michael Jordan" and lives on coffee and its unrealistic promises of productivity. Lita enjoys playing guitar and long trips to Target. Follow her on Facebook.


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