"We seldom get into trouble when we speak softly. It is only when we raise our voices that the sparks fly and tiny molehills become great mountains of contention."
- - Gordon B. Hinckley
June 12, 2014
Messing Up the Family History
by Cyndie Swindlehurst


I have just completed the research for my father's family history and have recorded it in my online genealogy service. It was a big job.

My problem is my newly-reactivated nephew. He is wandering around my genealogy website and wreaking havoc with the family tree. Without some basic training it is easy to match and merge families into strange shapes. How do I suggest that this sweet nephew get training without discouraging his interest in family history work?

As a side note, because of family dynamics I cannot be the one to provide that training.


Congratulations on your family history success. You have probably spent hundreds of hours on this project. And you’ve done a great service for your family. I wish I could give you technical advice about preventing the perversion of your work online. But I cannot.

You sound familiar with the website you use, and I assume you would have blocked changes to your father’s family tree if that were possible.

I’m also assuming that your nephew has less information about the family history than you do, and that his changes are wrong. It is, of course, possible that he knows something you don’t. But if you’re confident in your research, we can proceed to the rest of your question.

You want to know how to encourage your nephew to get training in family history without discouraging his interest in that subject. That is a noble goal. And if he is truly interested in doing family history, he will welcome your suggestion.

But you must admit that even though you love your nephew and would like to see him productively engaged with family history, what you really want, most of all, is for him to stop messing with the family history you have already put together.

No one can blame you. You have spent hundred of hours working on your research and recording the results. It is neither unkind nor unreasonable of you to want to prevent your nephew from messing up the work you’ve done. Even if his intentions are good, he is doing harm, and he must be stopped.

I have three suggestions.

First, ask him not to make any more changes to your online family tree. Be kind, of course. But also be clear and direct. Don’t hint, “You sure have to be careful on that website. Funny things can happen.” Or, “You know, I was so confused by all the people named ‘Jane’ when I started doing our family history. I made a lot of mistakes.”

Neither of these statements says what you want to say. Instead, they hint at what you want to say and put an unfair burden on your nephew to read your mind.

Instead, be direct. The conversation will probably be uncomfortable, but there is no comfortable way to say what you need to say. Being direct is the best approach because it does not prolong his discomfort.

“Scott,” you may say, “I noticed that you were making changes to our family history website last week.” Then wait for him to respond. Then, continue in a sympathetic tone. “Well, it changed the entire family tree and I had to go back and correct it. I know you didn’t mean to, but would you please not make any changes to what I’ve got on the site? If you come across new research, of course, I’d love to hear about it.”

You should try to be both direct and tactful. Show tact by talking with him privately and respectfully instead of upbraiding or poking fun at him in front of the family. Start and end the conversation with something positive, and make it clear by your tone and expression that you’re not angry or even irritated.

Openly give him the benefit of the doubt: He didn’t know his website wanderings would actually change the information stored there. He probably assumed (justifiably, I think) that it would be nuts if anyone could change the family tree entries so easily and without permission.

Second, your idea that your nephew may be interested in family history and would benefit from training is a good one. So after you ask him not to change the online family record, tell him how he can learn more about doing family history.

This is the time to be encouraging and enthusiastic. “I’m glad you were looking at the family history,” you could say. “I’ve enjoyed doing the research. I took a class at the library last year to get started. If you’re interested, I can have my friend Sally Hopkins call you about the class she teaches.”

His response to this offer will help you know if he’s actually interested in family history. Whether or not he is, he now knows (1) that he can’t just change the family tree records online and (2) he should learn to do family history properly. He also knows (3) that if he messes around on the website, you will find him and make him talk about it. The prospect of such a conversation will probably deter future fiddling.

Third, don’t let this this conversation be the only one you have this year with your nephew. The next time you see him, be sure to greet him and talk about something pleasant. No matter what your family dynamics are, don’t let a disagreement be the only time you bother to talk to him.

Do you have a quandary, conundrum, or sticky situation in your life? Click this button to drop Cyndie a line, and she’ll be happy to answer your question in a future column. Any topic is welcome!

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About Cyndie Swindlehurst

Cynthia Munk Swindlehurst spent her childhood in New Hampshire and her adolescence in San Diego. She served a mission in Manaus Brazil. She graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in English and from Duke University with a law degree.

She practiced law until her first child was born. She enjoys reading, tap dancing, and discussing current events. She and her husband live in Greensboro, North Carolina with their two sons.

Cyndie serves as the Sunbeams teacher in her ward.

Visit Cyndie at Dear Cyndie
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