Who Do You Think You Are?

Exploring family history gives teens a sense of their place in the world.

I got my first good look at the Declaration of Independence at a local McDonald’s. I was nine years old, the US Bicentennial celebration was in full swing, and Colonial America and Revolutionary War themes were popular, well, everywhere.

As I sat in the red plastic booth with my Happy Meal, staring up at the life-sized reproduction on the wall over our table, I saw my name. Well, my last name, anyway.

Someone named Tho. Stone had signed the Declaration of Independence three lines below John Hancock. I wondered if we were related to him, then dismissed the idea.

Learning that Thomas Stone is a distant cousin increased my interest in American history.

Many years later, I learned I am indeed related to Thomas Stone, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He’s my great-great-great-great grandfather’s first cousin, and that makes him my first cousin seven times removed. Does that make me feel better about myself?

Probably, say psychologists.

A study conducted at Emory University and published in 2010 involved asking children a range of questions such as whether they knew where their parents met and where they grew up and went to school. The authors found that the more children knew about their family history, the higher their self-esteem and the better able they were to deal with the effects of stress.

Encouraging teenagers to dig into their family history helps strengthen family ties, whether the history is that of a parent or grandparent, or someone much more distant. Knowing more about the events in our family members’ lives helps us understand each other better, and can even bridge those gaps of disconnect between parents and teens.

Family stories informed me that my dad’s ability to build or fix almost anything is something passed down from his ancestors, who built and ran a saw and flour mill. That my sister’s passion for helping people, which led her to medical school, is not unlike that of our great-grandmother, who was a dedicated nurse.

So far, I’ve written two books about my ancestors and one about my husband’s grandfather, and I recently started another project, featuring two of my Revolutionary War patriot ancestors. One of them is a woman. She was brave and smart, and safely delivered secret papers to General Washington himself at Valley Forge. I can’t wait to share her story, because it connects me to every American.





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