Want an easy way to teach kids about their family history? Displays showcasing your heritage at home lets them experience it every day for themselves.
As a mom and a genealogist, I want to instill in my children a meaningful sense of their heritage. But I can only insert so many family history anecdotes into casual conversation without (justifiably) getting the eye-roll. Kids want to focus on what’s happening to and around them right now.
That’s why I like using family history displays to tell stories about the past. Strategically-placed family photos and heirlooms can become part of the everyday scenery of their lives, without being intrusive. Here are two thoughts on how to incorporate precious photos and heirlooms into your home decor.
Tell their stories first
Before trying to interest kids in stories about folks who lived long ago, create a culture that celebrates their own stories. Hang family pictures that evoke memories and capture personalities and relationships. Above my kitchen table hangs a big map, surrounded by sepia-toned enlargements of snapshots of our travel adventures. It’s a favorite conversation piece when friends visit, and these moments have come to partly define what it means to be “us.”
As children grow, they begin to create their own memories. Take note of the pictures they ask to see on your phone or those they post to their social media accounts. Print and frame them. Let them start their own family history displays about their lives, too. For example, my son Alex turned this corner of his bedroom into a “historical” display of his years in karate. The curtains no longer open easily, but the display brings out a sense of confidence and joy in him that’s worth losing the view of the neighbor’s yard.
Other ways to display a child’s own history include turning beloved old t-shirts into wall art or quilts. Think sports jerseys, camp or theater t-shirts or others that bring back happy memories. I haven’t tackled a t-shirt quilt yet (it’s on my list!), but I cut down one of my daughter’s old t-shirts and framed the center panel. Two of my son’s old t-shirts are wrapped around framed canvas panels and hung by his bedroom door.
Connect them to close relatives
It’s easy, as a genealogist, to become enchanted by distant ancestors. But the relatives who matter most to kids don’t usually have a bunch of “greats” in front of their names. Use displays to help them get to know their grandparents and great-grandparents.
My friend Rochelle Wilde has a simple but meaningful family history display at her house: it’s a set of two panels, one for each set of grandparents. Above and below pictures of each couple are favorite quotes from each grandparent. This is a great way for her children to strengthen their connection with grandparents who live far away.
At my own house, I’ve interspersed family photos from generations past along with more recent ones. If possible, frame a few childhood pictures of relatives. These remind kids that these relatives were once young, and may even prompt lookalike comparisons. In our entryway hangs a beautiful display created by my step-mother-in-law: first communion photos of herself and great-grandma Morton along with great-grandma’s rosary. The most precious part? A handwritten note on the back explaining her feelings about her faith. (Read more about this display and other creative heritage projects here.)
Small salutes to past generations
If you’re lucky enough to own family heirlooms, and they’re not too fragile or valuable to expose to everyday life, look for ways to incorporate them into your living space. We’ve hung heirloom quilts on racks in the living room and put sturdy quilts into use. Grandpa Morton’s World War II uniform jacket rests on a tabletop mannequin. A great-uncle’s old binoculars sit out alongside their worn leather case. Point these items out to the kids and tell them short stories about who owned them.
When children are young (and you have the most say in their bedroom décor), it’s easy to fill their bedrooms with nods to heritage. My youngest child, Seneca, has bedroom furniture that belonged to her paternal step-grandmother and great-grandmother. A favorite old family photo in a bright green polka-dotted frame sits next to a picture of a younger Seneca. A grandmother’s artwork decorates the walls.
Is it worth all this effort to create family history displays my children may not really appreciate? I say yes. It’s true these items may only catch their full attention once or twice. But I’ve overheard them a few times explaining our unique décor to their friends, and it’s been gratifying to hear that the stories have “stuck.” They have simply become a natural part of their everyday surroundings and identity. That’s what I want family history to feel like: home.
Get started! Read this article on displaying family heirlooms without putting them in harm’s way.