man and daughter laughter playing making family history

The Power of Building a Family Legacy

By Crystal Hamilton

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Legacy is a heavy word. It bears the imprint of countless generations. It refers to events past, identities present, and ambitions for the future.

Family legacy carries a different meaning for each person – each family – but it is always important.

 “We all stand on the shoulders of our ancestors . . .”
– Nicholas Kristof

Kristof’s quote is so often repeated and paraphrased that it has almost become a cliché. But it remains, when we think about it, a powerful image.

I stand on the shoulders of my ancestors – on their pain, their struggles and their bravery. I also stand on their triumphs and victories. All of that became the foundation of my own life.

It is my duty and responsibility to continue this legacy, and build upon it, in a way that honors the people who paved the way for me.

What is Family Legacy?

Family legacy evokes, for many, an image of old money. Accumulated wealth, vast estates, generations of compound interest. It’s even seen as (dare I say) a bougie kind of phrase.

But legacy is much more than that, and it’s time to reclaim the phrase back for better use.

Family legacy isn’t just about Wills and Executors. It’s about the things so valuable that they can’t be pinned down in legal documents: values, passions and beliefs. These legacies are passed down because they are important to your family. Carefully looked after, they can survive generations of changing fortunes.

This kind of legacy is passed through families in two ways:

  1. Telling stories of generations past
  2. The current generation leading their children by example

What you do and say, every day, contributes to your family legacy.

What is The Difference Between Heritage and Legacy?

Legacy and heritage are often used interchangeably. Legacy is the intergenerational wealth that is handed down through the generations of the family. As already described, this is not just financial wealth but includes the families core values.

In contrast, heritage is broader. Like legacy, it is also something a person is born into. Heritage, however, includes the whole history of a person so includes wider historical and cultural influences, such as those developed through being raised in a particular part of the world.

Why is Family Legacy Important?

Although each of us is unique, built from our own histories and experiences, the foundation upon which this was built is our family legacy. It’s a collection of ethics, knowledge and expectations.

This legacy affects the shape of the family members’ lives.

A large-scale example is the legacy shared by people of color in America. Each of us who have roots in this country have been affected by the grim history of slavery and discrimination. This legacy has passed down financial inequality and sociological differences. On the flip side, this very same legacy has developed a deep strength of character and inspired tremendous fortitude.

On a smaller scale, a family legacy includes your family traditions (like the way you celebrate Christmas or visit a certain cabin in the woods for fishing trips). It will also include less easily identifiable things, like values surrounding work (work to live, or live to work?) and even political leanings.

Of course, none of these things are static. We constantly work to improve our position in life (see below). But we can only build on what we are given. That’s why it’s vital to pass on a solid, positive legacy to the next generation.

Breaking Cycles

By acknowledging and focusing on these points, it’s possible to pinpoint negative patterns within our own family legacies.

Damaging circumstance like poverty, lack of education and even abuse are passed down from generation to generation. These generational cycles can be hard to break – but, by working to instill new core values in your own family, you can change the pattern.

 How Do I Leave a Positive Legacy For My Family?

As well as the obvious part of building a legacy – working hard to gain financial security, to make life easier for your kids – there are less clear, but perhaps more spiritually valuable, building blocks.

Live Your Legacy

I’ve said it already, but it’s worth repeating: lead by example! So much of your legacy will be tied up in your kids’ memories of how you acted, as well as what you said.

If you want wisdom as part of your heritage, then take the time to learn. If you want your kids to value hard work, you must be industrious.

One area that too many adults don’t identify as “legacy” is working on a loving, respectful relationship. This, too, will be part of your children’s legacy, as they learn how to treat their partner and discover how they should be treated.

Learn About Your Ancestry and Teach the Next Generation

Stories passed down through word of mouth (and even through memoirs, for some) make up a beautiful part of a family’s legacy.

Which child doesn’t love to hear tales of their great grandmother defying gender expectations; or to sit, shocked, as they learn about their grandfather’s brush with the law?

Whether these stories are overtly positive or not, it is easy to find lessons within them. We find the most relatable role models possible and learn from our ancestors’ triumps and mistakes.

Document Your Memories

Why not make the learning process easier for the next generation? Solidifying your experiences by recording them is a fantastic gift to your ancestors and it can be very cathartic for you in the present.

  • Keep a physical diary (a notebook will never suffer from outdated software!)
  • Type up your memoirs
  • Make photo albums
  • Make recordings – audio or video – for future generations to enjoy
  • You can even paint pictures or write stories based around your family’s life – you don’t need to be literal

Practice Charity as a Family

“When we give cheerfully and accept gratefully, everyone is blessed.” 
– Maya Angelou

Serving others is a pure action. It can bring inner peace to yourself, helps those you are aiding, and instils a strong sense of morality into your children.

Volunteering with your family is a great way of cementing benevolence in your legacy. Other activities, like fund-raising, are even more flexible. The goal should be to leave the world a better place than you found it – whether that’s through contributing to cancer research or cleaning up the river in your neighborhood.

Remember, though, that you can’t help effectively if you don’t also look after yourself! That’s why I put so much focus on self-care as part of self-actualization. Meet your own potential so that you can do a great job helping others.

Prepare an Ethical Will/Legacy Letter

An ethical will, now more commonly known as a legacy letter, is a concept that goes back to Biblical times. It isn’t legally binding, like a normal will. It is simply a way to pass on your guidance, and specific wishes for the non-material parts of your legacy.

Writing the ethical will down in the form of a legacy letter has became more commonplace (there is less chance of things being forgotten or misinterpreted!).

It doesn’t have to be a one-and-done document, either. You can start an ethical will at any point and even have several, stored together.

Lots of couples like to make a legacy letter when they get married – and then add another sheet at a significant anniversary. You could also write down your wishes and guidance for a new or expected child. Some people even write a legacy letter during a divorce, as a way to solidify the common values they commit to when co-parenting.

Most famously, of course, people write legacy letters near the end of their lives.

This will is a famous example of a sort of generalized legacy letter from former President Barack Obama to his daughters Sasha and Malia. Click through for other full-text examples of more ethical wills and legacy letters that will help spark ideas of how you can create your very own.

Some things you may like to include in your own ethical will are:

  • Your life’s lessons and guidance for your children
  • A particularly touching/morally relevant story from your past
  • Your core values and ethics
  • Your spiritual beliefs (religious or otherwise)
  • Apologies
  • Forgiveness
  • Love

What Family Legacy Means to Me

As human beings, we are born with a desire to define ourselves – to find our purpose and live it.

Part of this is making sure we are important to others and securing a meaning for our existence even after we have died. Instinctively, we share our stories and advice with others. We pass on our experiences and wisdom to our children and loved ones. Therefore, family legacy exists.

For my own family legacy, I focus on three main areas.

  1. Values
  2. Wisdom
  3. Generosity

I think they’re relevant to most families, although how they are framed might be a bit different. I will share my own interpretation below – and I would love to hear about your own ideas!

Emotional Legacy

Emotional legacy is centered around healthy emotional growth, which is another reason I value self-actualization so highly.

The things that make youyouare included in your emotional legacy. The truths we hold dear, the parts of ourselves we consider beautiful – in short, the sum of our personalities.

An emotional legacy can have huge impact on the life of the next generation. Parents pass on their values, their fears and their joys to their children.

By stressing the importance of honesty, you are more likely to instill integrity in your descendants – making the world a better place for them and others. By showing your children how to act and react with empathy and understanding, you are doing the same.

The negatives are also passed on. Anxieties, low self-esteem and lack of empathy are harmful parts of emotional legacy. They make up the negative cycles we touched upon earlier.

Spiritual Legacy

Our principles and philosophies are passed on to our children. We should strive to align our minds, bodies and spirits with what we believe to be God’s plan for us so we can become our best selves and reach our full potential.

Even non-religious people pass on a spiritual legacy – many people who are non-religious believe in things like karma and justice, which are abstract and spiritual.

As parents, we have a responsibility to pass on principles and philosophies- spiritual tools essential to empower future generations so they too can live a life authentic to their truth. Such a legacy can be passed on by teaching our children to practice gratitude, expand their consciousness, serve others, nurture self-care, and strive to achieve self-actualization.

Financial Legacy

Although money is nowhere near the most important thing in this article, it would be silly to call it unimportant. Financial security makes life much easier in so many ways.

On the other hand, a glut of wealth and no moral guidance can lead to spoiled and damaged children growing up to be harmful adults.

Money should be viewed through a lens of responsibility. It is important to be responsible and strive for financial independence; and it is also important to be responsible with the wealth you gather. Living this way can encourage smart monetary habits and generosity in your descendants.

Community Legacy

Using all of the above to make a positive impact in your community is one of the most rewarding and lasting ways of building your legacy. From litter picking to mentoring; from charity fundraisers to children’s sports events. We can all work to make our communities better every day. It’s a great way to be remembered.

The Wrap Up

Those who came before us left the world as it is now. The good and the bad: the life-saving medications and the scars left by genocides; the gorgeous architecture and ravaged rainforests.

Those who come after us will have to work with what we leave them.

We are the temporary guardians and stewards of this world, so it is our job to look after it and improve it where possible. This doesn’t have to be a globally-relevant undertaking for each of us – it can just mean meeting our potential, acting ethically and leading by example.

By leaving a considered, moral family legacy we can all contribute to a better world for the next generation. Our own children will thank us, as will theirs!

And, in the present, the process of cultivating a family legacy will aid you on your path to self-discovery and personal growth. It will force you to consider what is most important to you – where you want your energy focused, and how you are going to meet your goals.

Let’s do this, people! Let’s do this!

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