Should Children Take DNA Tests?
Should children take DNA tests? Thought leaders and genetic genealogy experts say yes. In keynote speeches and interviews at RootsTech 2018, Cece Moore, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Living DNA co-founders David Nicholson and Hannah Morden, reveal their thoughts about the booming DNA industry and how it can benefit children.
LivingDNA is making great strides in the industry, especially in pinning down ethnic origins to specific regions within the British Isles. Yet they also have an altruistic goal – to overcome racial divides through DNA testing.
Co-founders David Nicholson and Hannah Morden wowed the audience at RootsTech 2018 with their story of extracting enough DNA from a postage stamp to determine an abandoned child’s father. They then showed a video about their innovative work with school children. LivingDNA wants to show kids all over the world just how connected they are. Their innovative One Family One World Project seeks “to both map the world’s DNA and to help provide educational programmes to show the world that we are all connected based on our DNA.” 
In an interview at RootsTech, Hannah Morden shared that LivingDNA began this initiative when several schools in the UK reached out for help resolving their racial divides. They gave the children DNA tests and taught them that humans are all descended from the same ancestors.
LivingDNA Educational Programs revolve around the idea that prejudices and fears driving racist behavior will change when students learn they are not from just one place. They shared a video at RootsTech showing British school children looking at their DNA test results together. One boy said, “we are all from Scandanavia!” Another boy said, “Egypt? “I just thought I was from here.” Morden shared, “This program was the first thing that has created a sustained change in [students’] perception of race.”
Nicholson said, “Our family history is part of everyone’s family history. We’re not separate nationalities, we’re not separate individuals. We’re one humanity, one nationality, one inter-nationality across the world. That’s what our project helps kids connect to.” (RootsTech Living DNA General Session 2018).
Educators who are interested in the LivingDNA curriculum can go to https://www.livingdna.com/one-family/education to request the syllabus and learn more about DNA testing packages for classes of all sizes.
“Connect. Belong.” This RootsTech theme encompassed concept that is extremely significant for children: belonging. Trying to figure out how they are going to fit in and belong in the world is essential, but often difficult and scary for teens.
All humans yearn for belonging, according to thought leader Brene Brown. In her TED talks and many books about living a wholehearted life, she tells about the importance of compassion, courage, and connection.  Connection and belonging are intricately tied together. “We need reminders – collective joy and pain – reminders that we are inextricably connected to each other,” she says. 
Cece Moore, who works to reunited adopted people with their biological parents, shared the idea that DNA testing can contribute to the desire for belonging in the Saturday keynote at RootsTech. “Through DNA we can find a greater sense of belonging. By reconnecting lost family branches through DNA we can find new ancestors, new cousins, new research connections, new stories, and a greater sense of belonging. There is no more powerful tool than DNA testing to reach these goals.”
Children can learn about belonging in two ways through DNA testing for children – belonging to their ethnicity results, and belonging to their biological relatives through cousin matching. If you choose to turn off cousin matching for your children, can they still achieve a sense of belonging from DNA test results? Cece Moore believes that yes, they will feel a sense of belonging just in understanding their ethnic estimates. In fact, she believes children have a right to understand their identity at a young age. Many adults, she says, have misconceptions about their ethnic makeup. They may think they are Cherokee only to learn their DNA says they are 0.5% Native American. This can be upsetting. Teaching children about their ancestral origins while they are young can eliminate these kinds of surprises later.
Cece Moore says that each family’s situation is different, and so must be their choices about DNA testing and cousin matching. One of my friends used DNA testing to help her 13-year-old adopted daughter feel more connected to her African roots. They opted in to the cousin matching and allowed her daughter to message with the cousins she found through DNA. She shared her excitement with her adopted mom every time she got a message from a new cousin.
Update as of 28 January 2019: There is a new way for children to learn about inherited traits and genes after taking a DNA test! If their parents and/or grandparents have also taken a DNA test, they can upload their results to Gene Heritage and learn about inheritance patterns of interesting genes like OCA2 which influences eye color and ABCC11 which influences armpit odor! Check out my post about the Gene Heritage Grandchild report here:
Igniting the Love of Learning
Henry Louis Gates Jr. addressed the RootsTech audience about the potential for genetic genealogy to solve the racial divide in the United States. He said, “we are all brothers and sisters under the skin at the level of the genome.”
Gates wants to inspire poor black children to pursue education. With this end in mind, he came up with a new curriculum for middle school children to trace their family trees in social studies and then test their DNA in science class.
He is passionate that educators can “use the magic of ancestry tracing through genealogy and genetics to reignite a love of learning…What is ancestry tracing about? It is about your favorite subject! What is your favorite subject? You! Yourself. It is about learning about yourself. What kind of person is not going to be fired up by this curriculum?”
He and a colleague received funding to try this idea in a week-long summer camp they named “Finding Your Roots: The Seedlings.” The curriculum seeks to answer the questions, “Who am I? Who are my ancestors? Where did they come from? How are we different? How much do we share? How far back can we go?”
The Seedlings experiment was filmed and made into an six part web series. Watch the Seedlings episodes here. Children who signed up said, “I always wondered where I came from,” and “I really wanted to learn about myself.” At the camp, children explored their own family history and DNA ancestry with innovative lessons and activities.
Children became scientists and performed DNA experiments in a lab. Experiences and games taught about adaptation, classification, differences, relatedness, and evolution. They made predictions about ethnic results. During the week, they opened their DNA test results.
They also search their genealogy through web searching, on-site repositories, and oral interviews. They filled out a family tree and learned principles of genealogy.
Professor Gates said, “Discovering a new aspect about oneself through one’s ancestors is infectious. Genealogy puts you there. All of a sudden the abstractions of American history, the endless names and dates and timelines have a face and a texture and the face somehow resembles you. History becomes a mirror and you can see yourself in it.”
Gates urged the RootsTech audience to help him spread the word about this revolutionary curriculum. His purpose to ignite a love of learning in children of color is laudable. The project-based, personalized learning in the Seedlings curriculum is aligned with current educational research.
Is it appropriate for parents to give children DNA tests when they are so young and not old enough to understand the consent form? When they are grown, will they regret adding their personal genetic information to commercial databases?
Cece Moore says to remember that once we test a child’s DNA, it’s out there. She and another genetic genealogy expert, Blaine Bettinger, have both tested their children and feel that there are minimal privacy risks, but she acknowledges that she can’t foresee the future. Five years ago, she couldn’t predict how they would be using DNA test results today. As innovation and changes occur in the field of genetic genealogy, who knows what the future holds.
Moore recommends turning off cousin matching features for your child’s DNA test. AncestryDNA allows you to opt in or opt out of this at any time. Cousin matching can bring up difficult questions beyond a child’s understanding. You wouldn’t want a child to be surprised by estranged family members, an adoption situation, or a misattributed parentage situation.
Don’t test your child just because you’re curious – the desire to test should come from them. When your child wants to know about their DNA, that’s the right time.
 “One Family One World Project,” LivingDNA (https://www.livingdna.com/one-family accessed 28 March 2018).
The following note contains affiliate links: Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let go of Who You Think You’re Supposed To Be and Embrace Who You Are (Center City, Minnesota: Hazelden, 2010). See also Brene Brown, Rising Strong: How the Ability to Reset Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, (New York: Random House Publishing Group, 2015).  “Author Brene Brown on the difference between belonging and fitting in,” 21 September 2017, CBS News (https://www.cbsnews.com : accessed 28 March 2018)