I remember being a young girl and sitting at the kitchen table with my great-grandfather. It must have been a Sunday because he was wearing his suit and the smell of meatballs filled the air of my grandmother’s kitchen. I remember asking him question after question about life in Italy, about our family members who were still there, what it was like coming to America and seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time, why we always got together on Sundays and ate macaroni, and on and on. Thankfully, he was a patient man. He thoughtfully answered every question in his broken-English, and my love for heritage began.
This story typifies one of the easiest ways to build generational bridges: relating to each other through our shared heritage. A simple conversation with your child or grandchild will start forging that bridge and can create a link to the past, present, and future. Grandparents and, if we’re lucky, great-grandparents, are some of a child’s first teachers, and one of their first subjects is their own roots and heritage.
In today’s world it has become even more important to build generational bridges. Families tend to be more spread out geographically and, overall, everyone just seems to be busier. Electronic devices may help us connect through phone calls, Face Time, and Skype, but they also alienate us by allowing us to spend more time on games and social media than having face-to-face conversations. This is one reason it is important to start building the bridge when the children are young. Learning about their heritage gives them a strong foundation upon which to stand, and it increases their self-esteem and confidence.
There are countless ways to begin building your generational bridges. Here are some blocks to get you started now:
B- Be present. Unless you’re taking photos, recording your conversation, or doing online research with your child or grandchild, put all electronics aside and really talk to them. Answer their questions as fully and honestly as you can. It is much more important to have good quality shorter conversations, than longer ones where we are not fully present. Children want to know about their family and their history, especially stories about their mom or dad when they were young.
R- Record stories, recipes, and photos. Here is one area where technology helps tremendously, especially because children understand it so naturally now. Use your phone to take pictures together, send them family recipes, start a digital scrapbook, and even record your conversation. You can make a mock-interview, with your child as the interviewer. Make it fun for them (and you)!
I- Investigate ancestors. This is another area where technology is extremely helpful. Show them your family tree and photos of ancestors or maps that show where they lived. Be careful not to overwhelm them with too much information at once, and try not to presume that because you are interested in a certain piece of your history, they will be too. If they don’t seem interested in something, don’t let that discourage you. There is always another way in. Try talking about the country itself and traditions and culture they can identify with to start.
D- Develop creativity. There are endless activities you can do with your child or grandchild. The activities, like the conversations, will be highly dependent on their age level. Make a scrapbook of old photos, create a family cookbook, flip open an atlas and learn more about your countries of ancestry, help them make their own family tree, or plan a family movie night to show old family videos. As you are creating more treasured memories, you are building a stronger bridge to your child or grandchild.
G- Gather around at mealtimes. Prepare a meal that has been a family favorite for generations. If you don’t have one, create one. Heritage is always evolving and these will be the recipes that they pass down one day. Once the meal is prepared, sit down together to eat and talk. We all have busy lives, but make it a goal to have a certain amount of family dinners together each week and use that time to connect (or reconnect!).
E- Engage them and show your Enthusiasm. The more you can engage them in conversation and show your enthusiasm about what you are telling them, the more involved they will get. If they think you’re not that interested, they won’t be either.
Remember, heritage is not a mere history lesson, but a unique opportunity to look into the past, present, and future all at once. What you do today will be the stories, recipes, photos, and memories that your children and grandchildren will use to build their generational bridges to their own children and grandchildren one day.
Deanna Bufo Novak is the mother of two young Italian-Polish-Czech-American children. She is an attorney and the creator and author of award-winning, personalized children’s books based on heritage and world culture, including My Heritage Book. Deanna is also the founder and C.H.O. (Chief Heritage Officer) of kidsHeritage, Inc., an affiliate of Legacy Tree Genealogists. You can find her special keepsake books at www.myheritagebook.com and at select locations in Walt Disney World.