Opinion: Family History by Helen Bonnick

Our identity is rooted in the past but understanding it can help us choose who we want to be in the future, argues Helen Bonnick

I have held many strong opinions over the last weeks. I have ranted about teenagers drinking themselves into oblivion, the person who set light to the birds’ nest opposite my house or the vagaries of the A-level system and university entrance.

But after returning from four days of “ancestor hunting”, one opinion that has stuck with me is the importance of knowing your roots. There has been an increase in television and radio programmes, books and internet sites on genealogy. And public records offices have seen a big increase in the number of people searching census data.

Tracing your family history is more than listing a series of names and dates – that part is relatively easy now – and not even about creating a picture and story of your ancestral past in all its gore or glory. It has become for many people a search and exploration of their identity, a sense of who you are because of where you have come from, an explanation for features, mannerisms, moods. We are familiar with this idea through the acceptance of the need of adopted children to trace their birth families; and since March 2005 of the right of children conceived artificially to have information about their genetic origins. It is hard to believe that this was until recently thought of as damaging or dangerous.

The organisation I work for recently celebrated its 21st birthday and chose as a theme the idea of identity. It was a time to affirm the values and purpose of our work and also to recognise the impact of that work on the client group: children in schools and their families. We support young people, struggling with a sense of who they are, to face their difficulties, embrace their identity and make positive choices for the future. There is a recognition that, while our identity is rooted in our past, we have the possibility to choose who we are in the future.

It is a confusing world we live in, where neighbours may not be in any sense who we thought they were; and people are grouped together for ease of description with labels they would not necessarily want. As adults, intervening in the lives and identity of vulnerable youngsters, the responsibility we have cannot be overestimated.

Helen Bonnick is a supervisor of school-home support workers and a social worker

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