How Genealogy Can Strengthen Research Skills and Identity in Kids

Luis Rivera

Luis Rivera

Growing up, I always wanted to answer the question: “Who are we?" I knew my family was Puerto Rican, but I wanted to explore more about my identity. I wanted to investigate what gave my family distinct physical characteristics and discover where our family originated from before coming to the island of Puerto Rico.

Essentially, I wanted to learn more about what made us… us. So, I began my genealogy search at the age of 14 — conducting interviews at home, searching census records online and ultimately flying to Puerto Rico and Spain to research our family and documenting the journey each step of the way. This would eventually lead me to start a genealogy club here at Whitby along with Upper School Science Teacher Shelley Castro to share our passion for genealogy and to hopefully create a new generation of budding genealogists along the way.

But you might be asking yourself some questions. What is genealogy? What are the benefits of this hobby? Or simply, how can I get started?

What is Genealogy?  

Genealogy derives from the Greek word γενεαλογία which breaks down to γενεά “generation” and λόγος “knowledge," implying that genealogists like myself spend their time researching their family lineages and family history. With this information, genealogists create pedigree charts extending as far back as documents allow them. Most genealogists rely heavily on documents such censuses, birth/marriage/death records, directories, newspaper articles, and even war enlistments to document and track their ancestors back through time. In recent years, genealogy has also turned to genetics in which companies analyze a person’s saliva to dig deeper into their family’s past using source populations to cross reference their DNA, reaching new heights previously unheard of in the world of genealogy.

Depending on your culture, genealogy can look many different ways. Some rely more on oral traditions (such as Hawai’ian culture) but many cultures today rely on what’s called a “paper trail” in order to track their ancestors. Naming traditions may also impact a genealogical query where cultures and religions may dictate how to name a child. For example: Jewish (Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews may differ), Italian, Swedish and naming traditions are fairly easy to delineate but there are many others as well. Genealogy comes in various forms and knowing what your culture follows is a great way to get started. 

How can an elective about researching past ancestors provide benefits to my child?

Genealogists will more often than not tell you that becoming a genealogist has been a fun, interesting, but also consuming hobby. Those of us that have dropped into the deep end of genealogy spend a few hours a day doing research, while others may only log in sporadically some days of the week or every few months. But each of us can undoubtedly ramble on about the various benefits that come along with this passion. So here are a few areas of growth your child can gain some benefits in:


Growing up in a culture different than your parents’ native one can definitely be a challenge in terms of grappling with identity. I was fortunate enough that my parents instilled in me a deep pride for my culture and language, and genealogy has helped me push those boundaries even further. Genealogy may allow a child a chance to reach into their family’s past and learn about their history, previous ways of life, religion, traditions, dishes, and even events that have shaped a family’s past and present.

By researching more about your family, you can establish connections to others and generate conversations with older family members to learn more about your family. “Where is our surname from? What was it like growing up in a rural town/urban city? How was it moving to another country? What was your favorite dish growing up?” are all great starter questions that may bring a child closer to their roots. Even if immigration occurred many generations ago, being able to connect with an ancestor or branch of your family tree can create pride and confidence in a child’s outlook on life.



Being able to use various sources, both primary and secondary, allow children to develop stronger research skills. Combing through census records, civil registries, and newspapers allows students to cross-reference information in order to confirm their family’s whereabouts and origins.

A great connection would also be the IB Middle Years Programme's (MYP) Approaches to Learning. Students practice several strands of the Research ATL by collecting, recording and verifying data, making connections between various sources of information, and identifying primary and secondary sources. By starting my research at such a young age, I was able to learn the importance of confirming information with other reliable sources each step of the way. These skills were later very important throughout my high school and college education when research played an integral role in my studies. 

How can I get started?

For new genealogists, whether avid or recreational ones, this initially may be a hard question to tackle. The first step without a doubt would be to talk to your family and using them as your first line of communication. You’d be surprised who in the family carries ancestral information, so be sure to speak with not only parents and grandparents but also uncles, aunts, cousins, and even family friends who have been close to the family. From there, you can start to build a family tree. Make sure to jot down all important information about your ancestors such as names (even nicknames!), important dates (birth/marriage/death), locations, education, professions, and even any stories that may be associated with that person.

With this new information, there are various paths that can be taken:

1. Families with various generational ties to the United States (including territories such as Puerto Rico)

Websites such as Ancestry ($$) and FamilySearch are great initial resources to begin your search. Census records (starting in 1940 and earlier) are great ways to find where your family lived and who their parents, ancestors, and siblings were. Since many families immigrated to the United States, you can use ship manifests and naturalization records to confirm an ancestor’s country of origin. Remember: Not all ancestors had the same names coming into the country, be attentive to name changes and various spellings when entering the country or applying for citizenship. Once you’ve ‘jumped the pond’ with your ancestors, you will have to rely on local records from that country in order to continue your research. Some records can easily be found online while others require going to the actual town or capital city in order to access records on your ancestors.


Also, did you know: a common myth about name changes in the United States is that Ellis Island forced changes in surnames when in reality, more times than less, it was your ancestor themselves who chose to change their name. For more information, be sure to check out the Smithsonian’s article Did Ellis Island Officials Really Change the Names of Immigrants, Mental Floss’ article Why Your Family Name Did Not Come From a Mistake at Ellis Island or the New York Public Library’s article Why Your Family Name Was Not Changed at Ellis Island (and One That Was).

2. Families with ties to South America and Europe. If your ancestors recently immigrated and/or currently lives in South America or in Europe

Both FamilySearch and Ancestry ($$) can be still great tools for your search. Personally, I’ve worked with both websites which are great tools for genealogy. However, Ancestry is a paid subscriber website while FamilySearch provides free access. Sometimes there is an overlap in information and sometimes one website has more information than the other, so it really depends on the country. For example, Ancestry has a multitude of documents for its towns and provinces in Sweden but lacks documentation from Poland and Austria. FamilySearch’s search option provides a map of countries with available resources. Many South American countries have a similar situation in regards to genealogy. Remember that sometimes there are websites with local registries in which one can log in to search; other times you would have to conduct research in person at the town or capital city level in order to find out more about your ancestors.  

3) Families with ties to Africa and Asia

This category might be the hardest of the bunch and mainly because many of the records are held at a local level. Each country’s history may influence what genealogy may look like at the local level. A lot of countries used oral history to pass on genealogies and were not used to track people like Europeans. For many countries it wasn't until the arrival of the European peoples like the English, Dutch, or Portuguese that they started formally keeping records. For example, colonized African countries might only have physical records once they colonized. China on the other hand lost many family pedigrees during the Great Leap Forward, while Japan relies on a koseki (戸籍) or ‘family registry’ in order to keep track of families and can be held and accessed in ancestral towns. Though the leg work with African and Asian countries might be greater, methods such as oral histories may help highlight genealogies and ancestors where government records cannot.

Truly, genealogy has been an infectious and very rewarding hobby. It has taken me to the mountain towns and coasts of Puerto Rico and to the small town of Sóller on the Balearic island of Mallorca. It has taught me to recognize the determination of my Indigenous and African ancestors and acknowledge the uncertainty my European ancestors faced when arriving in the New World. Genealogy has taught me to embrace new aspects of my identity like learning that I had creole ancestors from Martinique and Guadeloupe and what it means to be “Puerto Rican."

I am hoping that this elective will turn into a hobby, whether now or later in life, where each student is able to find a similar and rewarding passion following their own path to their ancestors and the stories of those that contributed to their present-day selves.  

Luis Rivera

Luis Rivera

Luis Ariel Rivera is an Upper School Spanish teacher at Whitby School. His interest in language learning was sparked in high school after taking French and later furthered his love of all foreign languages in college after majoring in Russian. When Luis isn't trying to learn all the languages of the world, he enjoys traveling abroad and researching his family's past.