Learn about your family

The Questions We Forget to Ask Our Parents

I became my family historian. Here’s what I’ve learned about reclaiming our past.

Sean Kernan
6 min readFeb 22, 2024

--

Uncle Jeff, Mamma Jan, me, Grandpa Marvin, Grandma Vivian. Taken in Birmingham, Alabama.

I never knew my paternal grandfather. He was a mysterious figure who died when I was four and whose name was often mentioned. My sole memory is a hazy one of him giving me popsicles on my birthday, shortly before he died of a mysterious illness.

I yearned to construct some type of mental image of him, an idea of the life he lived, perhaps to recover a sense of self that felt missing. I began asking questions: What was his demeanor? What did he do? What did he sound like? I tried to envision myself, looking out through his eyes in a very different world, with him not knowing his grandson was searching through time for his essence, trying to reclaim something he couldn’t yet define — but soon would.

From there I realized, I knew so little about my family’s history, even in the immediate generations before mine. And so I began an incredibly rewarding journey of learning — one that more of you should consider. Why? Because surprisingly few people know much about their family history. Per a 2021 study, one third of Americans can’t even name all four of their grandparents.

By taking a moment to record stories from your parents and grandparents, I suspect you’ll usually be quite surprised to learn some of the details of your family’s past. You’ll position yourself to pass these stories down to your own children and grandchildren, rather than feeling stuck in a bubble in time, a product of chaotic matchmaking and fate.

The benefits of learning about your lineage

A study led by psychology professor, Dr. Robyn Fivush, found that studying your family history can be particularly good for adolescents. Those that know their family story demonstrate more emotional availability and wellbeing, which helps with solidifying a healthy identity. Another study showed improved wellbeing and reduced anxiety in adults with this same exercise.

Which might feel like a strange finding. How can simply studying family do so much for us?

--

--

Sean Kernan

Writer and writing instructor. Always on the hunt for a good story. That guy from Quora. Writing out of Tampa, Florida.