Do your children know all four of your parents’ names and where they were born? The personal qualities they were best known for? Do you know your parents’ worst setbacks—and how they overcame them?

Sharing family history can be grounding, inspiring and good for family harmony. Holiday gatherings can be the ideal time to dive in. And while there is no one right way to explore your collective history, we can offer a number of suggestions.

Why it’s important

While researching your genealogy is helpful, the accompanying stories may deepen your family’s appreciation of the experiences that forged your forebears’ characters, and the values still evident today.

For wealthy families in particular, including time for family history can be a fun, meaningful way to frame an annual family business meeting. The conversation can hone communication skills that are helpful when it’s time to make decisions together about assets.

A family history project can offer a family going through a liquidity event (e.g., selling a business) time to reflect on the values, qualities and decisions that created their financial success—recalling the past before starting a new chapter.

For new generations, sharing family history can foster a connection to the source of their wealth. They may never have heard about their predecessors’ struggles, or the labor involved in creating wealth. It can teach the lesson that wealth is not guaranteed to last and motivate the young to emulate values that contribute to continuing success.

As one patriarch said: “I want future generations to understand that we didn’t just wake up one day and find a pile on money on our doorstep. My hope is that they will appreciate their favorable financial situation more if they understand how we got here.” 

How to share

So how might you go about getting the family to explore its past?

Here’s one approach: Have a simple discussion. A family member interested in genealogy could kick off the conversation. Perhaps pair this family historian with a younger person who is naturally inquisitive. (Or pair relatives who feel attuned to one another.)

Involving younger children in collecting information on the prior generations’ journeys can help inspire pride in the family’s achievements.

You could hire a writer to help. However, before contracting out, consider that an important element of the exercise is the opportunity to talk with each other.

Interviews can be done, one-on-one, with the results presented to the group. Include lesser-known relatives for different perspectives. (Sending questions in advance gives people time to prepare.) If interviewing at a large gathering, ask a question, allow time for listening to the answer, and then let others share their reactions.

Contradictory memories can enrich a family’s discussion.

In one family, a matriarch was a formidable character experienced differently by her granddaughters. One remembered being intimidated by her. Another admired her grandmother and had strong memories of being taken to the theater. Their conversation helped the adult granddaughters see what they did and didn’t want to keep: the learning, not the fear.

Additional techniques

Other ways to explore your common past include:

  • Starting with a family artifact. Props can spur conversations. One family held up a cooking pot passed down by their grandmother used to heat milk for coffee. It led her descendants to remember how nurturing she was.
  • Using old family photosAsk: Who around the table knows who these people are? What can you tell us about them? Remember their funny aspects, the texture of their relationships. Record the conversation: The journey of discovery could result in a film, slideshow or coffee table book.
  • Taking a heritage tripOne wealthy family traveled to the site of their grandparents’ humble beginnings in Ireland. Traveling can deepen everyone’s appreciation of how far their family has come.
  • Gathering stories from characters who aren’t usually in the limelight. Don’t stop with the biggest personality or the most successful. Did a spouse make sacrifices? What costs of success were endured along the way? And the stories don’t have to be new—retell old favorites, too.

Just as importantly, explore past challenges—failures and adversity, not just triumphs. How did living through terrible times feel? When family history is preserved, it can serve as a guide and moral compass. Perhaps the biggest message to the young may be that family history is unfinished. The next chapter is theirs to write.

We can help

Knowing where your family has been will be enormously useful in helping you decide where you’d like to go. So, once you’ve gathered your family history, please don’t hesitate call on your J.P. Morgan team to help your family chart its future.


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