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How understanding your family history helps your kids to thrive

A writhing, wailing bundle enters your lives, and everything changes. No sleep, but a love that bowls you over. No couple time (for a while), but an instant family! A never-ending supply of dirty nappies, but also, the tiniest, softest fingers gripping yours. Having a baby robs you of much you took for granted, but pays you back tenfold in life-expanding and unexpected ways.

And it's not just you who is mad about the babe! If this is the first baby of its generation in your family, your little one has opened up a whole new world of experience for your parents, your siblings and possibly your grandparents. Everyone's role is redefined. Your mum is now a granny! Your father-in-law's a granddad! And if you're like many new parents, it's pretty exciting to see your child's place in your family. Your family was one way, and now it's different. All thanks to your little bub.

As he grows, you help your little one to connect with your family. When he's tiny, it's just about contact. Rocking him to sleep, singing to him, feeding him. These are all things grandparents and other family members can do, and often this is when you need grandma's help with baby. When your son or daughter is older, it becomes more about doing fun things with grandma and grandpa, like going to a museum, reading a story, or just playing together.

Why family history matters

As your child gets to the age at which she starts asking thoughtful questions about granny's and grandpa's lives, things get more interesting. "Granny," your child might say, "do you have any brothers or sisters?" "Granny, why do you speak Chinese?", she might ask. Suddenly, your family has its very own investigative journalist! Many parents find these kinds of questions sweet and funny, which they often are.

But did you know research has found that kids who know a lot about their family history also feel more in control of their lives, a greater sense of self-esteem, less anxiety, and more of a sense that their family functions well? They even behave better than children who know less about their family history.


Picture all parents sitting their child down and letting loose a stream of stories about their family's past...! Nope, it doesn't work that way, says psychology professor Marshall P Duke at Emory University, one of the authors of this research. Just because kids who know a lot about their family history are also less anxious and more well-behaved, does not necessarily mean that simply telling your child family stories will make them less anxious and more beautifully behaved.  Rather than causation, the study only measured association, that is: kids who know about their family history also happen to feel less anxious and behave better. So how does that help parents?

What the sharing of family stories can teach kids

In a recent article in the Huffington Post, Professor Duke explains how telling family stories may help your children: "...we found that family stories seem to be transferred by mothers and grandmothers more often than not and that the information was typically passed during family dinners, family vacations, family holidays, and the like. [...] These very same regular family dinners, yearly vacations, and holiday celebrations occur more frequently in families that have high levels of cohesiveness and [...] contribute to the development of a strong sense of what we have called the intergenerational self. It is this intergenerational self and the personal strength and moral guidance that seem to derive from it that are associated with increased resilience, better adjustment, and improved chances of good clinical and educational outcomes."

In other words, it is not the content, but the process of sharing family stories that matters most.

In families where children know their family history, the family has been spending time together and talking. In the process of these stories being told, children have learnt some very important things that give them confidence. For example, they might have learnt that:

  • I have a place within my family - I am not alone.
  • My grandparents and parents had to deal with challenges and they are ok - I will be, too.
  • My parents and grandparents take the time to talk to me and share their history, thoughts and feelings with me - I matter.
  • My family members talk about themselves as a family - we may have differences but we are committed to each other.

How to share your family stories

Here are some pointers for sharing your family history:

1. Take your children seriously. In order to tell your children about your family history in any sort of meaningful way, you will need to take their thoughts and questions seriously. The idea is not to hold a lecture or to throw out some quick facts, but to sit down and have an enjoyable family chat, which involves your child expressing thoughts, asking questions, and having these responded to. The lesson your child will learn is: My thoughts and questions matter - one of the cornerstones of resilient, confident behaviour.

2. Tell your family story in a way that promotes the idea of resilience. Professor Duke's research has found that there are three types of stories parents and grandparents tend to tell when talking about family history. One is, we had everything and lost it. The second is, we had nothing and worked hard to get where we are. And the third is, we've had ups and downs but we persevere. Duke has found that the third narrative is associated with more resilient behaviour in children. So when you tell your story, avoid a simplistic black-and-white version of your family history, and tell your children (or grandchildren) about the genuine ups and downs their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents experienced. The lesson your child will learn is: I'll experience ups and downs in life but if I persevere I'll be ok.

3. Collect and display old photographs to spark discussion.  Especially if talking about your family history does not come naturally to your family, display some photographs of your parents as children, or of your own grandparents, around the house - ideally close to where you are likely to sit down and have a chat with your kids, like the living room or kitchen. You could even make it a family project and put an heirbook together as a family. This would give you and your parents the chance to include things like old letters and postcards, or even to write down and include some memories. When your children have their own children, this will be an ideal conversation starter for them and their own children about the family's history.


4. Talk about your family's core values.  A chat about your family members' experiences is the ideal time to bring up moral issues that are important to you. For example, you might focus on a part of the story in which a grandparent did something courageous, or in which someone betrayed someone else. Children learn a lot about values from storybooks and daily life, but when hearing about the lives of adults, they get a glimpse into more complex questions of morality - a great opportunity. Do make sure to adjust what you say according to what you feel your child can handle at her age.

5. Carve out time to talk.  The simplest thing might be the hardest of all. As Professor Duke argues, the most important thing is not what the family stories were about, but the fact that parents and grandparents took time to sit with their children and grandchildren and talk to them. In our busy, work-dominated lives we often think we need to fill up any precious free time with a fun activity. Having something planned is great, but in order to have time to talk, sometimes you need to plan nothing at all. Giving conversations the chance to develop requires some regular sitting down for meals, some time to just lounge around in the living room and read, play and talk, some simple enjoyment of being together and not doing much. Family get-togethers like birthdays and anniversaries are also chances to talk as a family. So remember, sitting around and talking is not a waste of time... It's a chance for your family to develop a sense of cohesion and for your children to learn more about their place in the world.

Do you and your parents ever talk to your children about your family's past? If so, when do you tend to do this? How do your children respond? Please feel free to share your experiences in the comments!

This article was written by our education writer Diana van Walsum. Diana is an education and educational technology writer and a former Early Years teacher. Holding a Master's degree in ICT in Education from the University of Hong Kong, a Psychology degree, and an Early Childhood teaching diploma, Diana believes that children learn best through active, hands-on inquiry, play and conversation. Besides her busy education writing schedule she also enjoys supply teaching.

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Photo editing: Give your photos that 'Venture' look

You've probably all seen the modern studio-style photographs - clean white backgrounds, lovely sharp bright images, in vibrant colours or in black & white... and with gorgeously illuminated irises! One of the best known photography studios here in the UK is Venture Photography, if you've seen their work you'll know what we mean. Here's the thing - a lot of the effect for such 'high-key' photographs can be achieved from photo-editing after the photos have already been taken.


We've heard some commentators complain that this style of photography is unnatural or surreal. But we should remember that a (significant) part of photography is art, and that this 'Venture-style' photography does look great as framed prints, particularly in homes with a more modern design. Photography, like art, isn't just about realism.

In this blog article, we'd like to show you what professional photo-editing can do for your everyday homemade photos. We'd like to show you that it's possible to give your family snapshots that look, without having to invest in very expensive studio equipment.

Transform your snapshots into studio photography

We have several examples of this kind of photo-editing that we'd like to share with you. All the photos shown here are of the gorgeous little daughter of a client we're currently working with, thank you for allowing us to share these images!

The first example below was actually taken on a Canon 5D Mark II, an excellent digital SLR that we ourselves use. The photograph itself is a reasonable shot, but perhaps not something you'd think of blowing up and hanging on a wall.

We saw the potential in the image, and with some cropping, editing and conversion to black and white were able to give it a much more evocative and artistic style that we thought could look quite lovely as a framed panoramic wall print.

Yes, the image itself was captured on a very good camera, which certainly makes it easier to perform this sort of editing. But it's not just photos taken on a top SLR camera that can be edited... the next three examples below are simply shots taken from an iPhone 4.

We like the first image below for the girl's expression and joy in having her teether exactly where she wanted it! And of course the cute little hoodie. But the image suffered from the typical under-exposure of having too much white in the shot, and also too much background clutter.

With some editing and cropping, we were able to fully draw attention to that little smile and those gorgeous eyes. Granted that the image quality of a cropped iPhone photo may not be sufficient for a large 40 inch framed print, but you could certainly put this lovely image in a respectable 20 inch frame.

The next example below of our beautiful little model covered in soap suds has very similar issues as the photo above.

Post-edit, it is the simplicity and minimalism that makes the image stand out, and we can see it making a lovely framed print. 

The last example below is a simple snapshot of our little model lying on a bed - we think it's a lovely moment captured with her looking at the camera and those little legs up in the air... absolutely adorable! Here we've cleared out the background and enhanced the lighting to give it the surrealism of a well-lit studio with a white screen.

Photography tips for best results

So what kind of photos would allow us to perform this sort of editing? As you can see, it is possible for photos taken from your camera phone to be edited to look like studio photography shots. Here are some tips for what type of photographs work best:-

  • Try to take photos against a clean background (a white or light-coloured wall works) - it makes the editing much easier and you get better results! Avoid too much clutter in your photos.
  • Try to get sharp photos - for large portrait prints, you really want nice sharp images to work with. Shooting outdoors or in a bright environment helps a lot.
  • If you're using a digital SLR, set your camera to shoot in 'RAW' format rather thah 'JPEG'.
  • Be creative! Or be inspired! For lots of inspiration and ideas, check out our Kid Photography board on Pinterest - we're sure you'll see something there which will make you think, "That's beautiful... and I think I could do that"! Get the shots first, we can help you with the editing later.

For more general photography advice, check out the following blog articles:
  - 7 ways to take better photos with your iPhone
  - Top 5 photography-related tips for your heirbooks

 So if you feel that you've missed out on the chance to have professional photographs taken of your kids at a certain point in time, know that it's still possible to give some of your existing photos that studio effect.

We will be constantly updating our blog with lots of advice about heirbooking and photo editing, so do follow us on Facebook / Google Plus  / Twitter or join our e-mail distribution list so we can let you know about our latest articles!

Also check out our 'Latest Offers' page for details of how to get us to edit your photos for FREE! 

Have you done some editing yourself that you'd like to share? Or would you like to know what can be done for some of your favourite photographs? Do share your thoughts and questions.

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4 Ways to Boost Your Kids' Thinking Skills Through Reflection

We really love doing things with our kids. Building pillow forts, going to the park, traveling... you name it, we prefer to do it with our kids. That's not to say we never need an adult break - we really do. But after a day sans kids we start missing their little voices, their exuberant curiosity, and even their sticky fingers and adamant demands.

We know the kids love family time. Any time they get to be with both mummy and daddy and do something fun together is just about the best time possible in their book. You can practically see the sense of security and love beaming off their little faces. But we sometimes wonder how much they'll remember of what we do, and whether they're learning anything along the way. When they look back, will it just be a blur of general positive feelings? Or are our little ones picking up some life lessons through our family adventures?

Deeper understandings through reflection

With my personal background in Montessori education, I have long been passionate about the subject of child development. Research from leading child development organizations like the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) in the United States has found that the key to kids learning something long-lasting from their experiences is reflection. Reflection happens when kids talk about and think about their experiences.

When kids talk about and think about their experiences in a way that encourages reflection, they are more likely to find meaning in their memories. Rather than just knowing what happened, they start to analyze what happened and think about things like:

  • Why did it happen?
  • What did I find most interesting?
  • How did it make me feel?
  • Was it like anything else I've seen?
  • Did I learn something that I can use in another situation?

Why is it important for kids to analyze their experiences? Of course we don't want our kids constantly analyzing what they do. A romp in the park, a splash in the pool, a funny bedtime story - it's important to be able to just enjoy things without any analysis at all. But some experiences contain deeper lessons, like:

  • Why was the tiger pacing back and forth? Was it uncomfortable in its enclosure? Did it have enough space? Should wild animals be kept in zoos? Is it sometimes ok? When?
  • Why did the tower of blocks fall over this time and not last time? Did I build it in a different way? What could I try next time?
  • Why did my friend get upset when I asked her for her toy? How could I ask her next time so that she does not feel upset? What else could I do so that we can share our toys happily?
  • Why do people in Italy sound different from us? Why don't we speak that language? Why do we speak the languages we speak? Where am I from? Where are mummy and daddy from? Where are my grandmas and grandpas from?

When kids get used to mummy and daddy asking them deeper questions about their experiences, they get used to thinking more deeply about what they've seen or done. They start to ask themselves questions and throw themselves into finding answers. The world becomes a more interesting place, and they understand more about it. At school and in daily life, they get better at weighing up situations, coming to informed conclusions, and making smart decisions.

How to get kids reflecting

Of course we naturally talk to our kids about what they see, hear, and do... But research has shown there are specific ways to help your kids develop their thinking skills by using these reflection-boosting strategies.

1.  Ask open-ended questions about your child's experiences. Instead of asking questions that can be answered with one word, like "What colour is it?", or "Do you like it?", ask open-ended questions that encourage your kids to think and communicate. You could ask things like "Why do you think the tiger is pacing back and forth?", or "What do you think you can do next time you want to borrow someone's toy?".

Be sure to accept what children say, even if it doesn't seem logical or correct. Avoid saying things like, "No, that's wrong". The main goal is to get kids confidently thinking for themselves and discussing their ideas with you. If you really want to steer them in a particular direction, try asking them questions that lead them to gradually realize what you are trying to tell them, or tell them an anecdote. But make sure you are not always "leading" your children towards an answer you think is correct. The idea is to get your kids thinking for themselves as often as possible, rather than just regurgitating a "right" answer.

As your children voice their thoughts, ask further open-ended questions that help your kids to extend their thinking. It's sometimes a big surprise how very insightful kids can be if encouraged to think for themselves.

2. Comment on what children say and do. Sometimes, all children need in order to feel encouraged to talk about what they're doing is to hear some small, friendly observational comment. You might say, "I see you used lots of colours in your tower today". This might prompt your child to tell you about a particular pattern of colours he or she is creating. This might turn into a conversation and some hands-on parent-child exploration of making patterns with lego, for example.

When looking back on past experiences, for example when sitting down and looking at your family heirbook together, you might say, "I remember you wanted to wear your blue dress on your birthday". This might get your daughter talking about why she wanted to wear that dress (maybe it was a present from grandma?) and this could lead to all kinds of other conversation about her birthday and about family celebrations in general.

3. Document experiences. Because young children find it difficult to remember experiences with the breadth and accuracy that adults do (although adults are often lacking in this area, too!), a great way to help kids to reflect on their experiences is to document them. That way, when the fun is over and there's some time to reflect, you can sit down together and remember what happened, and talk about the deeper meanings involved.

For example, you could take photos of a family adventure abroad. When you get home, show your kids the photos and jot down (or record) what they say about them. They might say things like: "Those children live in these boats by the sea. Even the small babies can swim. But the water is dirty". Then, you might like to compile your photos and the children's comments in a book. (Find out more about how to make an heirbook of your family experiences).
Finally, when your book is ready, sit down as a family and enjoy looking through the book together, reading your children's comments back to them and talking about what each of you in the family remembers. Help your kids to make sense of their experiences by asking them open-ended questions (as discussed above).

Documenting some of your special family adventures makes it more likely your kids will remember more of what they saw and did, and find meaning in their experiences. It also means you'll have many more times over the years to pore over and laugh over the photos, comments and stories capturing your shared family memories.

4. Make connections. As kids get older, they learn to think not just about what is right in front of them, but also about larger concepts. They learn to make connections between what is happening now, and what has happened or might happen in other situations. For instance, they might realize that the fact that people in Italy speak a different language from at home might mean that when they are visiting another new country, those people might speak yet another language. Being able to apply concepts learned to new situations is an essential component of intelligence, and an important life skill.

Help kids to make these connections by making comments or asking questions that steer them in a certain direction. For example, you could say something like, "We're going to Spain next month. I'm going to pack lots of the things we took to Italy. But I'm not taking my book of Italian words, I don't need Italian words in Spain...". (Of course, the comments you make will need to be pitched to make sense to your child at his or her age level).

Once kids get used to making connections and as they get older, they will eventually even reach a stage at which they can think about their thinking (usually in the second half of primary school). They'll start saying things like, "I thought people would say "grazie" in Spain but in Spain they speak Spanish, and in Spanish it's "gracias". I didn't know that before but I know that now. Next time we go to a new country I'll know that maybe they speak a different language, too".

Thinking about thinking is called metacognition and is pretty much the holy grail of thinking skills. Metacognition helps your kids to understand when and how to use certain thinking strategies, which will help them to handle life problems as well as to tackle some really thorny academic challenges at school.


We don't want our kids to have to analyze everything all the time. Sometimes, family fun is just family fun. But it's good to know that just by chatting with our kids about their experiences with a bit of thoughtfulness, we can help our kids to think more deeply and handle challenges more skillfully.

Do you ever talk to your kids about activities you have done as a family? Please feel free to share your experiences of what your kids say and do. Have you ever noticed any reflection, and if so, what do your kids say and do that shows you they are analyzing their experiences?

"How planning and reflection develop young children's thinking skills."
"Using reflection to connect and inspire learning."

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