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Money Can Grow on Trees
Posted on August 27, 2012 by Elizabeth Carey

Tracing how your family has earned a living through the ages is a great way to introduce kids to career choices, sensitive money matters—and some epic ancestral adventures

 

Most families have a favorite folktale or two: How great-aunt Alice on your father’s side could outfish anybody on this side of the Mississippi. Or how great, great Grandpa escaped war-torn Paris days before the Battle of the Marne. Something about these stories, starring the places and people we come from, makes us feel grounded. But tales of an ancestor’s adventures are especially appealing to children, who come pre-programmed with where-did-I-come-from questions.

 

This makes tracing your family tree a great project to do with the kids. But before you take the traditional route—tracking births, deaths, marriages—consider tracing a different kind of tree: A family “job” tree that records how various family members earned a living. This can spark conversations about family finance, money, jobs, and what your kids want to be when they grow up. It might even unearth some new fascinating stories that were lost generations ago.

 

Another perk: You’re sure to earn bonus points with family members. Imagine the pride your dad will feel when telling your daughter how his grandfather may have lost a fortune during the Depression, but it was because he refused close his factory and leave his employees jobless. Or the memories your mother-in-law will enjoy as she opens a photo album to show your son what she wore on her first day working as a bank teller. Perhaps most important, however, is that this project can show children that family wealth doesn’t always take a monetary form. The riches we pass on aren’t exclusive to an inheritance; a family’s legacy includes a treasure trove of lessons and legends.

 

Ready to get started? Here’s a roadmap for age-appropriate activities that’ll begin your kids’ trip through your family’s financial history.

 

Growing the Family Money Tree
Print out an image of a tree and take it to an office supply shop where it can be blown up and mounted on foam board. Draw lines for your kids and your immediate family. Help your little ones fill in the name and occupation of the relatives they know. Then ask your children who they’d like to interview next. Arrange visits, phone calls, or Skype sessions with your relatives so the kids can ask each relative about their occupation, favorite workplace, or first job. Ask the family record keepers—scrapbookers and pack rats alike. Perhaps they’ll-let you and the kids rummage through their attic or basement to look for clues in storage boxes.

 

For Cynthia Shenette, a Massachusetts mom and ancestry blogger, researching family history is a passion. By piecing together information from various sources—such as newspaper clippings, scrapbooks, and family interviews—Shenette has learned some fascinating facts about the various businesses they built. She discovered, for example, her great-aunt Helen was an entrepreneur at a time when most women weren’t yet working outside of the home. Shenette remembered playing with the cash register at Helen’s workplace as a child, but it took research to discover that her great-aunt Helen had invested $100 in 1918 to open a millinery with a friend in Worcester, MA. Before her business blossomed into a general apparel store, Helen sold hats she made by hand with horsehair, velvet, and ostrich feathers. Check out Shenette’s blog post: http://heritagezen.blogspot.com/search/label/Work%20and%20Employment to learn more.

 

Shenette says her son—a science-, math- and sports-loving gradeschooler—isn’t always as fascinated by family fact-finding missions as she is, but he’s learned more than most kids his age about his lineage and family businesses. His paternal grandmother’s family, for example, has lived on the same family farm for 200 years. Although the farm is no longer active, Shenette says, “He knows what they did, that they lived there for a long time, that it was a family farm, and they used to have cows.” Her advice: relate ancestry and family history to a kid’s age, what he or she is ready for at that age, and to things they can make sense of.

 

Tackle Family Financial Folklore
Tracing this special family tree offers a fresh approach to starting what can sometimes be a difficult conversation about finances, career choices, and the economy. Talking to your child about Aunt Helen’s hat business can segue into money matters at home. “Many times, as a society, we don’t talk about money,” says Nancy Porter, financial resource management specialist at Colorado State University Extension. This can be especially true if families are feeling the crunch of a slow economy. “Too many times parents try to shield their children from the realities of life, especially in this recent great recession that we’ve been in,” she says. Tracing what happened to another family member’s business over time and difficult market conditions “can be great to open the door to parents having those conversations with their children.”

 

For example, perhaps your kids will find out your great-uncle Timmy’s venture into fruit exports fell flat and he filed for bankruptcy. “That’s a generation removed,” Porter says. “It’s not like Dad’s losing his small business, but that this person in the family had this difficulty.” Talk about how your great-uncle Timmy picked himself up and dusted himself off, she says. “Maybe in hindsight there were some real advantages because that happened to him — maybe he had a business that prospered after those learning lessons.” In this way, Porter says, a realistic, but non-threatening dialogue can focus on how people learn to provide for the necessities of life.

 

Diane Larsen, an award-winning economics teacher at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, CA and small business owner [www.economicedu.org/], has dedicated much of her life to promoting youth financial literacy. She encourages parents to prepare themselves for the conversations this tree will spark—including potentially sticky situations. For better or worse, a child picks up on their parents’ response to money and family finance, she says. So, chose how to broach sticky subjects, such as bankruptcy, Great Depression, or divorce. “I always say, ‘It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish that makes a difference,’” Larsen says.

 

Tips For Tracing Your Tree
Cynthia Shenette, author of the blog Heritage Zen, offers five ways to explore your family’s occupational history.

 

1. START AT HOME: Begin with your immediate family. Start with your children and yourself, then work your way back.

 

2. ASK YOUR FAMILY MEMBERS: Interview living relatives—now. “I think this is a very important one and I wasn’t able to do it because I was busy with other things in my life when they were around,” says Shenette.

 

3. GET THE CLIPPINGS: Ask your family for memorabilia. Collect photos and other papers, documents, certificates, letters, and postcards. Sometimes there is someone in the family who serves as the record-keeper—that is the person you want to talk to, she says.

 

3. KEEP TRACK OF YOUR FINDINGS: Write down what you learn and where you found the information, “So if you need to go back and check it, you can remember where,” Shenette says. She uses FamilySearch.org, a site with free family tree-related resources, such as charts and tables.

 

4. GO TO THE LIBRARY: Your local public library likely has much to offer, from genealogy collections and workshops to free databases and helpful research allies. They also offer access to paid subscription services such as Ancestry and Heritage Quest.

 

5. DO MORE THAN GOOGLE: Search for records at town halls, including obituaries, the U.S. Census and City Directories. Search Ellis Island’s immigration data and the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America state records.

 

What is your favorite tale about how a relative made a living? Join the discussion on Ballooning Nest Eggs Facebook page.