The family tree project in grade school sounds benign enough. However, it makes many parents cringe.
If you are lucky, you have a family tree without any embarrassing decayed branches or unfortunate diseases. This project is no problem for you and your child.
If you aren’t so lucky, you’ve got dysfunction in your immediate family tree. Your tree is classified in the misfit group that sprouts from the ground with a rotten branch or disease. This assignment is yet another opportunity to broach the uncomfortable conversations that you’ve either avoided up until this point or loathe to discuss again.
There are all kinds of reasons for parents to despise this project. The most cringe-worthy matter is the questions that bubble up from the kids. Typically, these questions have been answered before and will need to be answered again and again over the years in order for the child to grasp the entire issue.
Trees with an Adoption Branch
I know of some lovely adoption stories. However, they are typically not terribly neat or tidy. These trees may look sparse. They can have a lot of unknowns. It may be hard to produce a baby picture and information about the birth parents. They may have the information, but it brings up a whole host of issues that can be painful. “Tell me why my birth mother couldn’t keep me, Mom.”
Trees with a Shunned or Missing Parent Branch
The parent branch can be full of thorns. It is a humungous challenge for a parent to create a strong sense of self within their child when their other parent has exited stage left. Imagine having to fill out a box about your father, who hasn’t been a part of your life. “Mom, why don’t we talk to my real dad anymore? Were you in love with him?”
Trees with a Shunned or Missing Grandparent Branch
This may be a bit less thorny than the rotten parent branch; however it still can stir up all the questions and pain. “Mom, why didn’t we go to Grandpa’s funeral last year?” “Daddy, why don’t we ever go to visit Grandma? She doesn’t live very far away.”
Trees with a Mental Illness or Addiction Branch
These trees are complicated and parents can’t avoid it. When a family member suffers from an addiction or a mental illness, it is scary for kids and parents. Parents want to be honest with their kids without creating fear. It is tricky to balance the love and respect when there is that elephant in the room called heredity. “Will Uncle Jeff ever get better? Does he still see things that aren’t really there?” “Dad, if I try bad drugs like your dad, will I have an addiction too?”
Trees with an Incarceration Branch
When a kid has a family member in prison, it’s hard to escape the sense of shame. The trees with an incarcerated branch are often tangled up with other dysfunctional branches. It is not likely that the incarceration is included in their school assignment, but just having to write the family member’s name down is enough to stir up the emotions. “Mom, why did Aunt Sue steal money from her job?” “Does Grandpa’s jail have really bad people living there? Is Grandpa a bad guy too?”
For a child, knowing where he or she comes from is essential for a true sense of self. Kids certainly need to know the good, the bad and the ugly about their family’s tree. However, forcing it through a grade school assignment can cause a storm of uncomfortable feelings and stress. Parent and child should have the freedom to discuss family issues in their own time.