SALT LAKE CITY — Family ties don't always bind. But experts suggest maybe they should.
A new poll found that 34 percent of Americans don't know about family members further back on their family tree than grandparents, and 21 percent can't name even one great-grandparent. A third can't name all four of their grandparents, according to the survey, which was conducted online by market research company OnePoll for Ancestry, a for-profit genealogy company, among 2,000 respondents.
At that same time, 84 percent said knowing one's heritage is important.
According to the survey, 21 percent don't know where even one grandparent was born and about 1 in 7 don't know what any of their grandparents did for a living.
Experts say family history matters. An oft-cited study from Emory University conducted back in 2010 and published in the Journal of Family Life, an interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed journal produced within the university, said adolescents who know their family histories and feel a sense of connection to previous generations of family show greater emotional well-being and a more developed sense of personal identity than those who don't.
According to the Emory study, "Family stories provide a sense of identity through time, and help children understand who they are in the world."
"Understanding your family story helps provide meaningful and invaluable connections to our relatives and their lives," Jennifer Utley, director of research at Ancestry, said of the survey. "The first step to gaining that understanding is to speak with relatives or begin family research. Learning their stories can inspire and impact how we chart our own course.”
What we want to know
The survey found that despite some ignorance of family history, those surveyed indicated willingness — even eagerness — to learn more. Eighty percent said they care about family history. About half said they had researched their heritage through a website, a family tree book, by looking for records or in other ways.
Although the current study was conducted for a genealogical research company, publicist Alexandra Flowers said respondents were from around the country and "not necessarily Ancestry customers."
Respondents were asked specifically what they'd like to know about their grandparents. Nearly three-fourths said they'd like to hear stories of them from when they were young, while 63 percent would like to learn their grandparents' childhood memories. A similar number would like to know about their grandparents' heritage and where their relatives came from.
Just over half of those surveyed want some advice from grandparents, while just under half wish grandparents would share personal beliefs and talk about family health issues.
Respondents also said they'd like to know more about their parents, from childhood stories to how they met.
Utley said those who have older relatives still living should take the time to learn more about family, collecting stories and asking questions.
Most people learn basics about their ancestors from oral history, she said, sometimes handed down through generations. They also learn by doing family history research. The survey said about 60 percent of Americans know what country their last name came from and 65 percent know what country relatives left to go to America.
Asking and telling
Genealogical research has become something of a national pastime, from several TV shows that tackle family roots to the emphasis that institutions place on it. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for example, emphasizes genealogical research as a tool and an important part of linking generations to one another, and a number of companies like Ancestry provide genealogy services and even DNA tests that customers can buy to learn more about their heritage. Some professional genealogists make their living tracing other people's family histories.
In a 2013 article in Pediatric Nursing, Judy Rollins of Georgetown University wrote about research showing that family-told histories typically follow one of three patterns.
In the "ascending family narrative," forebears were poor but worked hard and each generation did a little better: “Son, when we came to this country, we had nothing. Our family worked. We opened a store. Your grandfather went to high school. Your father went to college. And now you …”
In the "descending family narrative," all that was rich and glorious has been lost, she wrote.
But the most helpful version for children, she said, is the "oscillating family narrative," which tells of good times and bad. "We built a family business. Your grandfather was a pillar of the community. Your mother was on the board of the hospital. But we also had setbacks. You had an uncle who was once arrested. We had a house burn down. Your father lost a job. But no matter what happened, we always stuck together as a family.”
That version tells children they can carve out their own paths by making good decisions and getting back up if life knocks them down.
Irene Ota of Salt Lake City, recently retired from teaching at the University of Utah, was born in Japan but raised in America. Her children are multiracial and people sometimes ask about their heritage.
While knowing heritage offers broad benefits and sometimes surprises — Ota got a kick out of learning through a DNA test that she's 17 percent Irish — she thinks it might be especially important to those with ethnic backgrounds.
"You need a positive sense of who you are and who you come from," she said. "It's a sense of being unique but belonging to a certain community, having a certain identity."
When people research their history, she thinks many hope to find an important ancestor in the family tree — a governor or president or even royalty. No one wants to trace back to a relative who was a criminal or a slave owner. That's what happened to actor Ben Affleck, who made headlines because he initially asked the PBS series "Finding Your Roots" not to disclose that fact about his family tree. He later apologized and in a Facebook post wrote that “I felt embarrassed. The very thought left a bad taste in my mouth.”
Cultural identity, while important to people, Ota noted, can be tricky. People hope to find greatness, but mostly they hope not to find something shameful. They want to be able to talk about their heritage with pride.